How research changed one medical student’s definition of what it means to be a physician


Many medical students participate in research activities during their education. Often, the causes are close to their hearts, as is the case for Sukhwindar Singh Ajimal, a third year medical student at MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine. Along with other medical students, Ajimal is working on a research project called NUTROIT, which aims to evaluate the micronutrient status of patients who come to the emergency rooms at Detroit Receiving Hospital, Sinai Grace Hospital, and Harper University Hospital with heart attacks.

Years ago, Ajimal’s father suffered a heart attack. It was during the process of his treatment and recovery that Ajimal first felt the pull towards medicine. By the time he reached his senior year of undergraduate studies at Wayne State University, he was volunteering in the emergency department at Detroit Receiving Hospital doing clinical research on patients suffering from various cardiovascular diseases.  

The experience opened up a whole new realm of medicine to him. “I always thought of medicine during my undergraduate career as ‘Oh, I have to learn organic chemistry and biology, because that's what I need to get into medical school,’” Ajimal explained. “Of course, you need to have a good understanding of basic sciences to help patients. But it was really clinical research that helped me integrate this knowledge.”

Before starting medical school, Ajimal completed a master’s degree in Basic Medical Sciences. By the second year of his master’s program, he’d secured a position as Clinical Research Team Leader. That’s what laid the foundation for his current research. Many of the cardiovascular studies Ajimal was working on involved the use of socioeconomic surveys, and he noticed they were asking patients a lot of questions about their nutrition habits and lifestyle. “To me, there was a disconnect. There was so much we were asking about nutrition with no effective plan of action,” he said. “And in class, I was learning about all the different vitamins and minerals that are important for the heart, and how they can help make patients healthier.”

That’s what inspired Ajimal to pursue a meeting with Dr. Phillip Levy, who holds several titles at Wayne State University including Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Emergency Medicine and Chief Innovation Officer for the Wayne State University Physician Group. Together with two other medical students, Tejeshwar Singh Bawa (Wayne State University School of Medicine) and Danyoul Harris Yamin (Central Michigan University School of Medicine), Ajimal pitched Dr. Levy an idea for a research study that involved a nutritional intervention for patients who come to the emergency department with heart problems. That’s how the concept of NUTROIT was born. In the end, the team decided to focus on micronutrient status, measuring certain nutrient levels in patients who come to the emergency department with a heart attack, and then correlating those results with their 30-day recovery. Currently, they’re in the recruiting phase of the research.

Ajimal has found it advantageous to collaborate with medical students at other schools, as it has allowed for many opportunities to discuss their research and network across various institutions. As a result, he’s been able to get involved in other research projects and has received grants, including from the Emergency Medicine Foundation, to further his current projects.  
The biggest impact of Ajimal’s research experiences, though, is that they’ve changed his definition of being a physician. Originally, he wanted to help incite the sort of hope he felt after his dad’s heart attack years ago. But when he saw what his mentor Dr. Levy was doing, his perspective shifted. “He not only helped patients acutely, but he looked for patterns. My dad isn't the only person to ever have a heart attack. There are hundreds of thousands of heart attacks a year, unfortunately, in the United States,” Ajimal pointed out. “So yes, you want to help each patient. But our duty doesn't end there. For me, being a physician is also asking how you can take care of your society through innovative treatments by working with other companies and physicians. Research has brought  me to start thinking of healthcare on a much larger scale.”

As for how to get involved in research projects as a medical student, Ajimal notes that he was a shy kid, and putting himself out there for opportunities didn’t always feel easy. A great place to start, he said, is with professors. “Professors are there for office hours and welcome students to attend them. It’s a great place to just think out loud and talk to them.” Beyond that, he suggests casting a wide net using tools like LinkedIn to network. “It's important to reach out to as many people as you can who are doing work you’re interested in,” he said. “You never really know how one thing will lead to another.”