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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Dipal Patel, Medical Scientist Training Program

Dipal Patel

Where is your hometown?
I grew up in Clark, N.J.

What is your educational background?
I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in 2008 with a major in bioengineering and a minor in chemistry. At UPenn, I worked in a lab studying signaling pathways involved in the development of pulmonary hypertension. One of my lab mentors was an MD/PhD student who first introduced me to the concept of a dual career in science and medicine. My strong interest in the clinical applicability of this research led me to pursue dual-degree programs after graduation.

What are your research interests?
Broadly speaking, I’m interested in research that focuses on mechanisms of disease development, which matches well with research conducted in the lab of Kathleen Green, PhD. In the Green lab, we study ways in which the misregulation of desmosomes, which are cell-cell junctions with structural and signaling roles, contributes to the development of diseases in tissues such as the skin and heart.

What exciting projects are you working on?
I am really interested in investigating how mutations in desmosome proteins lead to the development of a specific cardiac disease called ARVC (arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy), which has been dubbed a “disease of the desmosome.” While we know that there are a few different types of cell-cell junctions that hold cardiac cells together, it is fascinating that mutations in desmosome proteins and not proteins in other junctions are associated with ARVC development.

My work so far suggests that a specific desmosome protein, called desmoplakin, has novel roles in regulating the assembly and stability of gap junctions, which are vital to the electrical conductivity and contraction of heart muscle. I hope to show that single disease-associated mutations in desmoplakin are sufficient to interfere with the function of gap junctions, which would contribute to our understanding of how desmosome mutations produce arrhythmias seen in ARVC.

What attracted you to the MSTP program?
Northwestern is a great name in both research and medicine, so I knew that I would be well-trained in both of these areas. More importantly, I wanted to be in a large city so that I could work with a diverse population during medical training and through community outreach.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
The MSTP recently teamed up with the NUCATS Institute to start the PRISM (PRomoting Inner-city youth In Science and Medicine) mentoring program, through which we send Feinberg mentors to work with high school students at the Robert R. McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Uptown. These high school students are self-selected and enthusiastic to work with us and learn more about careers in science and medicine. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to provide them with opportunities to pursue these goals.

We teach the students how to interview patients and then use hands-on experiments to study a particular question related to the patient case. To emphasize the importance of higher education and career planning, we work with the students on college and scholarship applications, and also bring in a variety of healthcare professionals to speak with the students about their career choices. My involvement with the development of PRISM has been challenging, but it has taught me a great deal about ways to contribute to our community and has been my best experience at Feinberg. 

What do you do in your free time?
Like so many other people in this city, I love when Chicago is warm enough to walk around and explore new areas of different neighborhoods. I’m a big fan of finding local restaurants with authentic, unique food.

What are your plans after graduation?
After finishing my thesis research, I’ll be going back to medical school to complete clinical rotations and apply for residency. It’s difficult to figure out what I want to specialize in without completing these rotations, but I’m leaning towards a career in cardiology or pediatrics, with some time for clinical or translational research. There’s an abundance of fields to choose from, but hopefully I’ll figure it out before leaving Northwestern!