March 13, 2020
University of New England student Natalie Koons (D.O., ’23) has become only the second in the College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNE COM) to receive a prestigious Medical Student Anesthesia Research Fellowship (MSARF) from the Foundation for Anesthesia Education and Research (FAER) since the program’s inception.
Koons, of Buffalo, New York, a first-year UNE COM student, applied for the program in December and was informed of her selection in early March. She is among 40 students selected from a pool of nearly 200 nationwide.
She was overjoyed when she heard news of her selection to the program and almost did not believe it.
“I didn’t know how competitive the applicant pool was. My face went white and my friend asked if I was OK,” she joked. “I was shocked.”
The FAER is a related organization of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) and has for over 30 years been dedicated to developing the next generation of physician-scientists in anesthesiology.
The MSARF program provides students financial support for eight weeks of anesthesiology research, training in scientific methods and techniques, and learning in how to incorporate research into their medical careers. Students work under a dedicated mentor who will provide training in research techniques and scientific methods.
In 2015, Catherine Bixby, D.O. ’18, was the first from UNE to receive the FAER anesthesia research fellowship.
This summer, Koons will travel to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she will work under the mentorship of Soban Umar, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Anesthesiology & Perioperative Medicine.
Research in the Umar Laboratory is focused on investigating the molecular mechanisms and pathophysiology of primary and secondary forms of pulmonary hypertension and associated ventricular dysfunction. The lab’s long-term goal is to devise novel regenerative therapies for these cardiopulmonary disorders.
Koons is no stranger to research; in fact, it is her passion.
A former ballet dancer, Koons attended Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, for her undergraduate education on a dance scholarship. But tragedy struck when she tore both of her hip labra, which are rings of cartilage on the outer edge of the hip socket that help ensure a full range of motion.
Koons was forced to quit dancing. But instead of giving up, she took the injury as an opportunity to study the biology of dance, the field in which she received her bachelor’s degree.
“Throughout my surgeries and rehabilitation, I got to express my interest in medicine,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in the human body as a dancer.”
That interest grew when Koons was selected in February 2017 to become an intern at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston (JBSA), where she was assigned to the Blood and Coagulation task area. She was one of only 13 students selected from a national pool of 1,500 applicants for a summer internship there.
The internship was just the beginning of Koons’ research career. Research opportunities were limited at her undergraduate university, she said, and so she returned to the USAISR following graduation for a nine-month stint as a research fellow from July 2018 to April of last year.
There, she worked in the Battlefield Health and Trauma Center for Human Integrative Physiology under the direction of Victor Convertino, Ph.D., senior scientist for combat casualty care and director of the center.
With Convertino, Koons conducted human hemorrhage research for the Department of Defense and authored two research papers on the subject.
One of those papers, “Tracking DO2 with Compensatory Reserve During Whole Blood Resuscitation in Baboons,” on which Koons is the lead author, was published in the journal Shock, which highlights studies of novel therapeutic approaches that critically examine the causes, mechanisms, and new treatments of shock-related pathophysiological conditions.
Throughout her internship and fellowship, Koons was involved in authoring 10 articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and she also presented over a dozen posters related to her research.
“That experience really opened my eyes to the kind of serious research that can be done as an anesthesiologist or physician,” Koons said.
Koons’ interest in anesthesiology originated in her work at the USAISR, where through a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic she was able to shadow working anesthesiologists and talk with both residents and program directors about the field. She said it was there that was encouraged to seek out the FAER fellowship.
It was also her experience at the USAISR that prepared her for the rigors of medical school, particularly one like UNE’s, which has a strong emphasis on research and interprofessional education.
UNE COM was one of Koons’ first medical school interviews, and she found that, despite interviewing elsewhere, no other school could compare.
“I just felt like everybody was very supportive, and UNE has so many resources for participating in research. I was very passionate about that and wanted to continue in that,” she said. “Not all osteopathic medical schools have those kinds of resources.”
Koons also said UNE’s interprofessional focus was appealing to her. The field of anesthesiology, she said, is quite academic and draws upon not only physiology and pharmacology but also the humanities.
“The humanities component is really important to me,” she said. “As an anesthesiologist, patients have to trust you right before they go into surgery. If they don’t, it’s known to have negative outcomes for surgery. You also have to visualize the physiology throughout the surgery and be very disciplined, organized, and work well under pressure.”
Marilyn R. Gugliucci, M.A., Ph.D., professor and director of geriatrics research at UNE, supported Koons throughout the application process.
“Having worked with Catherine on attaining the FAER MSARF in 2015, it was evident to me that Natalie was a perfect candidate for this prestigious research fellowship,” Gugliucci said. “Natalie will shine in this program, and it will launch her career in anesthesiology. She is so skilled in research and definitely deserving of this fellowship.”
Koons said she is looking forward to immersing herself in research at UCLA, and excited to experience California for the first time. Most of all, she is eager to develop her skills in research and make connections with world-renowned physician-scientists.
“I’m excited to have those connections and expand my repertoire of knowledge,” she said. “I am interested in comparing how the field is different on the West Coast versus the East Coast.”
Koons also said she is grateful to UNE for supporting her on her academic journey. Not only has the University encouraged her to pursue further research opportunities, but fellow students have welcomed her as part of the research community, as well.
“UNE has been super receptive and supportive of my continuing research, and has a very strong research program background for medical students. I know people who go to other osteopathic medical schools who don’t get those opportunities,” she said. “It’s refreshing, for sure.”