The Resident Psychiatry Research Pathway Program: Get to Know A Few of Our “PRP-ers”

Psychiatry residents at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital (WPH) who are interested in conducting research to better understand the neural underpinnings of mental illness can participate in the robust and rewarding Psychiatry Research Pathway (PRP) program. 

Below, meet a few of our “PRP-ers.”

Cindy Chou, MD, PhD (PGY4) is PRP Chief Resident. Dr. Chou’s research focuses on the association between endocannabinoid system pertubation and schizophrenia under the mentorship of Robert Sweet, MD

“Maintaining the physician-scientist pipeline is important in psychiatry. As a resident, I see first-hand important research questions when I take care of patients. However, at times it seems difficult to navigate the opportunities offered by our residency that help me become a well-rounded physician, therapist, educator, administrator, and advocate while also dedicating myself to science,” says Dr. Chou. “Through the PRP, I have received tremendous support that helps me understand different ways to succeed as a physician-scientist. Being in this environment with a strong history of fostering resident researchers means that I have senior career mentors, as well as many peer mentors to lean on when I am uncertain about next steps. My colleagues are always available to listen and offer support, and hearing their stories reassures me that I can be where they are one day, incorporating all the wonderful experiences WPH has offered me into my development as an independent investigator."

PRP residents benefit from substantial time dedicated to research activities time during PGY3 and PGY4, with opportunities for a four-week research elective during PGY1 and a ten-week research elective during PGY2. In addition, PRP-ers participate in the annual PRP Research Symposium by presenting their research to an audience of fellow residents, faculty mentors and T32 directors for discussion and feedback (followed by a well-earned social hour!). PRP-ers additionally benefit from an individualized mentor matching program.

PRP Vice-Chief Resident Matt Geramita, MD, PhD (PGY3) investigates striatal circuits encoding avoidance in mice under the mentorship of Susanne Ahmari, MD, PhD. Dr. Geramita explains how the mentorship program has enhanced his experience with the PRP: "The program emphasizes the importance of finding a primary mentor and a co-mentor early during residency. Having co-mentors helps PRP-ers to carve out their own research niche. It also positions them to successfully get a K grant, because by the time they submit their proposal, they already have a track record of working with a mentorship team.”

“The process of finding a mentoring team began when I interviewed for the PRP. I met with investigators at both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and decided to work with one mentor at each institution, Dr. Ahmari (Pitt) and Eric Yttri, PhD (CMU). Both are interested in disorders of the basal ganglia and both record neural activity from large populations of neurons,” said Dr. Geramita. “However, each lab uses different techniques to do this. Both Dr. Yttri and Dr. Ahmari were excited to start the collaboration, and the three of us brainstormed ideas during intern year which culminated in a review paper that was published during PGY2. By forming the team early in training, I'm positioned to incorporate techniques from both labs into the experiments that will serve as the preliminary data for my K grant."

Wonjae Chung, MD, PhD (PGY3), recently received a National Institute of Mental Health Outstanding Resident Award, which recognizes residents with outstanding research and academic potential. Dr. Chung conducts research examining variability in neural circuits and schizophrenia under the mentorship of David Lewis, MD. Last year, Dr. Chung used the PGY2 research block to learn cutting-edge expansion microscopy from a collaborator at Carnegie Mellon University, a technique that he is currently applying to a new study of excitatory synapses in schizophrenia.

Alfredo Sklar, MD, PhD (2019-2020 PRP Chief Resident), is a recipient of the Emerging Star Award, for his research in characterizing impairments in visual processing and selective attention as well as their impact on functional outcomes among individuals with schizophrenia spectrum disorders following their first psychotic break under the mentorship of Dean Salisbury, PhD. The Emerging Star Award is one of several career development resources provided by the Department of Psychiatry to enhance the success of PRP residents. 

To learn more about the PRP, go here.