Persad, Amit

2017 Finalist: ASTech Awards

Med Student Finds Time to Research the Brain, Improve Medical Education and Encourage Student Access to Science

What does a medical student do in the summer months? For recent University of Alberta medical school graduate, Amit Persad, his summers over the last five years have been spent researching neuroscience at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton with Dr. Roseline Godbout.

Persad’s project focuses on how a protein called a transcription factor affects areas of the brain in mice. The protein he works with, AP-2δ, seems to be involved with very specific areas of the brain. Based on his work, he says there may be a connection between these genes and different brain and psychiatric diseases. Now he is focusing on preliminary work around the possibility of nerve healing. Persad has presented this work and won awards at both a national and international level.

“The brain is a hard organ to work with, because we really don’t know how it works very well. The key thing about this project is that we are trying to relate how the brain grows to how it is organized and how it works, and that approach is currently bearing fruits. The key to being able to treat brain disease and injury is knowing a bit about how it works, and we are trying to expand that field.”

Building a better virtual patient

Not fully satisfied as a medical student and a neuroscience researcher, Persad has also found the time to help develop LiveBook at the University of Alberta. LiveBook is a software program designed to help medical students learn how to interact with patients. In medical school, students are taught to interact with patients and think through clinical problems in classroom lectures and by working through cases with professionals. Increasingly, virtual patients are used to teach patient interaction but Persad found these to be very limited.

“The problem is these virtual patients are used by going on and clicking on multiple choice questions to pick how to interact with the patient and what questions to ask,” Persad explains. “In real life, when you walk into a room and see a patient, they don’t have a floating multiple choice question box.”

In his second year of medical school, Persad began creating a program that allowed a med student to fill in a text box with a question. Based on what was asked, the program would return different responses. The student could decide about treating the patient based on the results.

“Most of these programs give you one outcome. Even if you do the wrong thing, it will correct you at the end and tell you what you were supposed to do. In our system, if you make the wrong decision, your patient doesn’t do well. You get the information at the end but you also see the results of doing the wrong thing.”

The LiveBook team had been working on the project prior to Persad joining, but their primary goal was to improve the multiple-choice software. Persad was introduced to the team through Dr. Sarah Forgie, an acclaimed medical educator and current vice-provost education, and Dr. Eleni Stroulia, a prominent researcher in natural language processing and artificial intelligence at the University of Alberta.

“I presented my idea to the whole team and they liked it and we let it take off from there,” says Persad.

Since the first meeting two years ago, the project has evolved from the first prototype. Persad now helps develop new ideas and improvements on the medical education side of the project. The program works by looking for relationships between key words and concepts to make meaningful queries based on the student’s input. Although it has been a big challenge, the team has worked collaboratively across many disciplines of computer science and medicine to create the improved iteration of LiveBook.

“It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned a lot. I made this little prototype and presented it to the computer science [team]. The way it has been carried forward is just amazing!”

Now, Persad is working with a professor, a masters student in computer science, a prominent medical expert, a paediatrics resident and another medical student.

“Certainly, having all these heads involved makes everything move forward a lot faster than it could otherwise. The U of A is a great place to have it happen.”

Making science education more than textbooks

Persad is also a leader for science outreach with his volunteer project, TeamUP Science. Persad and two other colleagues at the U of A started the non-profit organization in 2012.

“The idea was this: what if we took kids who don’t have much exposure to science, especially kids from rural backgrounds or kids from marginalized backgrounds in inner cities communities or from aboriginal backgrounds, and got them to come into the university and show them what science is all about in a way that connects everything together and makes it practical instead of an intellectual pursuit that maybe isn’t so relatable?”

This idea became the Interdisciplinary Science Competition (ISC), which allowed 40 students to go to the university and engage in chemistry, biology and physics lab to answer one central question: how to treat a biological contaminant by combining what they learned through each of the scientific disciplines.

“They loved it,” Persad says. “The feedback we got from that was outstanding.”

Now the ISC is up to 100 participants and growing.

“Seeing the way (the students) are growing and their interest is growing and even how they are changing the way they look at school is great.”

Moving forward, Persad is hoping to become an academic neurosurgeon and continue his research into nerve regeneration and brain cancer. He has started his training in neurosurgery at the University of Saskatchewan, and hopes to carry some of his previous work forward. He also says he hopes he can be a good teacher for other medical students and others interested in research.