Building a record of research success

In the spring of 2009, second-year podiatric medical student Adam Lang was among a group of faculty and students who were evaluating x-ray measurements of the foot that are typically used by surgeons to assess the outcomes of surgical procedures. That led Lang to question why so many injuries to the foot’s Lisfranc ligament are misdiagnosed; was there a better way, other than x-rays and MRIs, to diagnose these injuries?

Building a record of research success
CPMS Dean R. Tim Yoho, D.P.M., and Vassilios Vardaxis, Ph.D. (seated), have placed greater emphasis on podiatric research; fueling it are students like Lisa Grant, Joshua Marshall, David Rettedal and Alandra Greenlee and research Julian Rivera.

“The question stuck in my head,” recalls Vassilios Vardaxis, Ph.D., professor of physical therapy and one of Lang’s research colleagues.

The question might have remained there; Lang, D.P.M.’11, left DMU soon after for his rotations. Then that November Vardaxis got a call from Nathan Graves, then a second-year podiatric student who was seeking a research project.

“Nathan took the bull by the horns and made the project his own,” Vardaxis says.

The project has since evolved into a multi-faceted exploration engaging several students and faculty. It has earned internal and external grants, spurred additional projects and will likely result in several published articles. The project isn’t unusual, however: It epitomizes the growing research enterprise of the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery (CPMS) – creative, collaborative and beneficial for students.

“I’ve learned a lot about the research process – how to get a project approved, conducting the pre-investigation, the data collection phase, data processing and evaluation,” says Graves, who will graduate from DMU in May. “After medical school, no one’s going to teach you how to do research, so I wanted to learn it now.”

Strategic commitment to discovery

CPMS has worked strategically to give research fertile ground. In 2006, Dean R. Tim Yoho, D.P.M., FACFAS, invited Vardaxis to become the college’s director of research in addition to his faculty role in the physical therapy program in the College of Health Sciences. CPMS also established a research plan with three broad goals:

  • enhance podiatric curriculum to advance student knowledge in design, methodologies, policies and evaluation of research;
  • build on the research successes of CPMS to create a sustainable research program through the application of technologies, collaboration and scientific presentation; and
  • promote and support opportunities for CPMS students to develop the skills to become researchers in the field of podiatric medicine.

The ongoing results of the plan include incorporation of principles of evidence-based medicine throughout the curriculum and creation of a now-popular elective research course. An active Podiatric Practice Management and Journal Club promotes the examination of research evidence presented in the medical literature. The college holds a monthly forum for research presentations and discussions on research ideas.

The robust research environment of CPMS is not confined to the college’s walls.

Nine alumni authored articles in the January/February 2012 edition of the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery: Drs. Jason Campbell, Michael Donnenwerth and Colby Frost, Class of 2010; Drs. Lacey Clawson and Joshua Moore, Class of 2009; Robert Greenhagen, D.P.M.’08; David Northcutt, D.P.M.’06; Michael Lee, D.P.M.’96; and Troy Boffeli, D.P.M.’90.

“We emphasize an expectation of research in the college,” Yoho says. “Eighty to 85 percent of our faculty workload is tied to teaching activities, including patient care, but we also have an understanding that clinicians at academic health science institutions should have some commitment to research.”

That expectation has been met: Since 2008, CPMS faculty and students have had 12 peer-reviewed publications in podiatric professional journals, including the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery and Wounds. The January/February 2012 issue of the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery alone had nine authors of papers who are CPMS graduates. Other research articles have been accepted for publication, with several more projects related to medical education, clinical outcomes and basic biomechanics of foot structure and function in progress.

In addition, many faculty and students have presented podium and poster abstracts at national scientific meetings. Since 2008, CPMS faculty and students have received 11 national awards for these scientific presentations.

More than expected, research is strongly supported. “If DMU could wear a shirt, it would have given it to our research team off its back,” says Graves. He notes the input of faculty, the equipment and space loaned by DMU’s radiology department, the internal grant his team received and the willingness of students to be their subject pool.

The college’s positive research trends will likely only increase.

“People may not think research is accessible for first-year students, but they do have opportunities to set research goals,” says second-year podiatric student Lisa Grant, who, with Katie Besselman, D.P.M.’15, and DMU faculty, recently received an internal grant for their research on patients with Charcot’s foot, a complication of diabetes that weakens bones.

“I am proud of the research effort and quality of research products originating from the college,” Yoho says. “We have demonstrated it is possible for clinical faculty to satisfy this element of assigned faculty responsibility and to mentor students in the process.”

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