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Student Explores Field of Medical Genetics

Clinical Research Coordinator Nasim Bekheirnia; Chase Cho, OMS-II; and Reza Bekheirnia, MD, FACMG

Second year medical student Chase Cho knows firsthand that persistence and determination pay off when striving to reach goals. After reaching out to 15 clinicians and faculty members across the country, he managed to secure an internship and spent his summer doing “detective work” with physicians and researchers from the often overlooked specialty of medical genetics.

Relatively speaking, the field of medical genetics is young, just having gained its footing in the latter half of the 20th century. The American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ABMGG) wasn’t incorporated until 1980, and the ABMGG is the newest member of the American Board of Medical Specialties, with approval granted in 1991. The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), the professional membership organization through which Cho completed his internship, was also formed in 1991.

“The process of seeing a medical genetics patient is like a detective story—you may think it’s one particular gene affecting disease, but once the genetics testing results return you realize that isn’t the case, so you have to start looking at a different diagnosis,” Cho explained. “They had a case that took nearly three years to properly diagnose. The patient has a congenital abnormality stemming from a gene that had never been associated with this particular genetic disease before. Since this was the first instance of this happening, it took some research and discovery for the team to figure it out.” Although his internship has concluded, Cho is currently in the process of helping the team write up a case study report on the patient.

Cho traces his interest in genetics back to his undergraduate studies when he first realized that two people given the same diet and strength-training regimen could have markedly different results. His path to medical school, however, was a winding one. A self-described “stubborn and rebellious child,” Cho first realized his parents wanted him to be a doctor when he was six-years-old—and he immediately determined to be anything but. He instead parlayed his love of Star Trek and all things sci-fi into studying biochemistry at the University of California San Diego and eventually working in the field of renewable energy, conducting process refinement research for a major oil company.

It wasn’t long before Cho found himself disenchanted with the politics of industrial research and began considering a different path. Around that time, while practicing with his dragon boat team (a rowing sport similar to crew), he experienced a life changing moment. “One of the older gentlemen on our team had a heart attack, and I realized I had no idea what do in that situation,” he remembered. “Luckily we had two nurses on our team who ended up saving his life, but from then on I took it upon myself to learn how to react in an emergency situation. I took a first aid and CPR class and my instructor inspired me to continue on and I eventually became an instructor myself. Everything else just snowballed from there.”

A friend from BCOM’s inaugural class encouraged him to apply to the college and, during his first year of classes, he decided to start looking for a summer program in medical genetics to determine if that was a possible career path for him. He reached out to faculty members at various universities around the country and, after much persistence, finally heard back from a clinician at Baylor University whose colleague was involved in the ACMG Foundation for Genetic and Genomic Medicine Summer Genetics Scholars Program. Despite having missed the  deadline by two days, Cho reached out directly to Reza Bekheirnia, MD, and was accepted into the program.

Dr. Bekheirnia said, “I had the pleasure of working with Chase this summer. He is a very intelligent and eager young man. He is very punctual and he always showed up on time in clinics. He asked questions and paid attention to all details. After each clinic day, he read about the different patients and came to me and asked good and relevant questions. He has great communication skills with other physicians, residents, and co-workers. In a very short time, he wrote a draft of a complicated patient as a case report. Based on his presentation, he had a deep understanding of some complex nephrology and medical genetics concepts. He demonstrates compassion toward patients and I think he will be an outstanding physician.”

Cho said his internship was very rewarding and gave him knowledge he will call upon no matter what specialty he ultimately pursues in his career. “Medical genetics is an extremely interesting field, and it’s such a young specialty that it’s not one medical students necessarily hear about unless you know someone in the field or you’re in a learning hospital setting,” he added. “This internship was an invaluable experience. Dr. Bekheirnia was extremely helpful and I was also able to shadow other faculty members who are world-renowned specialists in musculoskeletal dysplasia genetics and metabolic genetics. People go to Baylor from all over the world to see these doctors. This experience has made me want to learn more and I think the study of genetics will become more and more common in the medical field in the years to come.”

For other medical students interested in gaining a summer internship in medical genetics or any field, Cho said persistence pays off. He reached out to 15 physicians across the country multiple times via phone and then email and ended up connecting with three. He said he’s grateful to BCOM faculty member Dr. Oliver Hayes for giving him positive encouragement and helping him with the application process.

“I found that once you have an internship, getting the most out of it depends on what opportunities you’re willing to take advantage of,” he advised. “At Baylor, all the clinicians, fellows, and specialists were very open to having students observe them. I met other medical students who invited me to attend lectures on campus. There’s ample opportunity out there, it’s just on you to determine how much you want to take away from the experience.”

Chase Cho is open to speaking with anybody interested in medical genetics. He can be reached via email through the BCOM directory.

Learn more about the ACMG Foundation for Genetic and Genomic Medicine Summer Genetics Scholars Program at: