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October 2012 E-News

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Penn Medicine Welcomes First Class of Perelman Scholars

Continuing the Tradition of Diversity of Talent

Raymond and Ruth Perelman's unprecedented gift to Penn Medicine was the culmination of years of involvement with the School and the University of Pennsylvania. Their philanthropy was also spurred by a sense of urgency about health care in America. As Ray told the Philadelphia Inquirer days after the gift was announced, "The key is to get brilliant students into the system who will make brilliant doctors."

This year, by funding 12 new full scholarships, the Perelman gift allows the School to continue the tradition of attracting extremely driven students with great intellect, wide-ranging interests, and the desire to make a difference through medicine.

The inaugural Perelman Scholars include bungee jumpers, a Tournament of Roses princess, a molecular biology major published as an undergraduate, and a lawyer who has worked on drafting policy guidelines on women's health for the Republic of Uganda. Leah Seifu, M'16, spoke for many of the students when she said, "It has been my dream to take part in a profession centered on an intrinsic love for humanity. Being a Perelman Scholar has made my dream a reality."

Perelman Portrait UnveilingOn October 18, Mr. Perelman had the opportunity to meet some Perelman Scholars and other students at the unveiling of the Perelmans' portrait, which will be displayed in the Biomedical Research Building. "Ruth and I are two people who cared very much about helping you make your dreams come true," Mr. Perelman said when he addressed the students. "I hope you will always know how much we believed in you - believed in your talents and in your dedication to the science and art of healing."

Recruiting the best students is an ongoing critical concern and the future of medicine depends on the students of today. For some Perelman Scholars, and many other financial aid recipients, scholarship aid made a Penn Medicine education possible.

"Penn Medicine has a reputation for excellence," said Melissa Asmar, M'16. "Without this gift, I may not have been able up attend this prestigious school. Being a Perelman Scholar will help me to achieve my goal of furthering the frontier of medicine."

Our students are the future of medicine. The Perelman Scholars program will continue to be a driving force in medical research, patient care, and most importantly, training the new doctors our country needs so much.

If you would like to learn more about funding scholarships, including the match available through the Jordan Challenge, please contact Bill Bole at or 215-898-9175. Or Give Now to support student financial aid through the annual fund.

Penn Announces Naming Gift for Smilow Center for Translational Research

Smilow GiftLed by the father and son team of Joel and Bill Smilow, the Smilow family made Penn Medicine the first recipient of their generosity in Philadelphia. The Smilows, who seek giving opportunities that offer immediate impact, have supported medical research at Yale, NYU, and Johns Hopkins. Their gift will enhance the Penn facility, and build capabilities in priority areas such as bioinformatics.

Read more here.


From Nigeria to the Perelman School

Fifth-year MD/PhD student Chuka Didigu's Journey to Become a Physician-Scientist

Chuka Didigu always intended to be a physician - he came to the US to get the best education possible. But his love of creating hypotheses and devising ways to test them grew unexpectedly from his experience in an undergraduate malaria research lab. A mentor recognized his raw talent and passion and suggested that he enroll in the University of Pennsylvania Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program to study biomedicine. He never looked back.

"The PIs at Penn were brilliant, and the students were all so warm, outgoing, and happy," Mr. Didigu said. "I never knew that research could be so much fun. I left the program knowing I wanted to be a physician scientist and that I had to come to Penn Medicine."

Chuka DidiguThe Perelman School has long been known for its strength in science education, and the Combined Degree and Physician Scholar Program is one of the first and largest programs in the US. Today it is unique in its complete integration of medical and graduate science education. MD/PhD students typically pursue both research and clinical coursework and rotations simultaneously throughout their training.

"The goal of the Combined Degree and Physician Scholar Program is to help students become a true chimera: a physician whose skills are informed by his or her training as an investigator, and an investigator whose research interests are informed by a deep understanding of people, their biology, and their disorders," said Lawrence "Skip" Brass, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Dean and Director, Combined Degree and Physician Scholar Programs at Penn Medicine.

Mr. Didigu decided to perform his graduate work in Dr. Robert Doms' HIV lab, taking on a very ambitious thesis project - finding a cure for HIV. "Because I grew up in Nigeria, where HIV is such a huge problem, I have always been drawn to researching infectious diseases. So it made sense for me to study them during my graduate work," said Mr. Didigu.

While this goal might have seemed out of reach just a few decades ago, research advancements are putting a cure for the pandemic in our sights. Dr. Doms discovered that a small population of Northern Europeans are resistant to immune cell infection because they do not carry two specific proteins HIV needs to infect a cell.

In another example of innovative partnerships between industry and Penn investigators, Dr. Doms' lab is collaborating with Dr. Carl June and biotech company Sangamo BioSciences to help translate this discovery into a therapy for HIV. So far this treatment has worked well in mice and shows promise in a small, 12-person, NIH-funded clinical study that is currently being written up.

Mr. Didigu gained extensive experience in engaging and organizing many different kinds of people in scientific pursuits during his graduate work - from patients in the clinical trials to doctors and clinical trial coordinators to NIH personnel to industry.

"This is a really interesting project, especially for an MD/PhD." he said. "It is not just about basic science - it also offers translational work you can immediately see."

In the future, Mr. Didigu plans to use his scientific expertise in a clinical setting. "The goal of the PhD is to learn how to come up with a good question and answer it. This skill set will be invaluable to my future patients. I love interacting with people, and being able to help patients is my main motivator in life."

Your gift to the Perelman School of Medicine annual fund supports financial aid, curriculum development, and research programming for MD/PhD students. If you would like to know more about other ways to support the dual degree program and students, please contact Bill Bole at or 215-898-9175.

Host Our Students as they Travel (HOST) Program Kicks Off

You Can Help Students Find Their Next Medical Home

For the past 10 years Perelman School alumni have opened their homes to medical students interviewing with residency programs - giving support during a crucial point in their medical careers. HOST relieves students of a financial burden and provides alumni the opportunity to impart the kind of advice and guidance that only comes from an experienced medical professional.

Rebecca Boxer, M'97, will be participating in HOST for the second time this year. "I value my education at Penn HOST LogoMedicine. Participating in the HOST program has been an easy way to give back to the School that did so much for me when I was a student," she said. "It is a joy to meet the young people going through medicine today - their motivation is both impressive and inspiring. I also love getting a personal perspective on what was happening at Penn Medicine."

With 112 HOST volunteers across the country, last year Penn Medicine was able to match over 58 students in 35 cities. As we gear up for this year's residency interview season, there is still time for you to join the ranks of volunteers and provide much needed support to our students.

Whether you are a resident, a fellow, or an emeritus, becoming a HOST volunteer is a great way to stay involved and give back to Penn Medicine! For more information on the program, or to become an alumni HOST volunteer, click here!


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