Dean Barbara J. Stoll and Dr. Eugene Boisaubin congratulate Salman Eraj.
Dean Barbara J. Stoll and Dr. Eugene Boisaubin congratulate Salman Eraj.

The specter of cancer has sparked the research passion of one fourth-year medical student, focusing its direction and resulting in a nationally competitive fellowship.

McGovern Medical student Salman Eraj lost his father to cancer just a few years ago when he was a senior at Rice University. Since that time he has been driven to understand cancer care, specifically radiation at the molecular level. Today he is the recipient of a research fellowship from the Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Honor Medical Society to further his cancer investigations.

“Witnessing my dad go through this ordeal remains the driving motivation for my decision to dedicate my career to cancer care and to patients like him,” Eraj said.

The AOA Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship is a $5,000 award recognizing the best student clinical research projects and honoring longtime AOA administrator and honorary member of the society Kuckein, who died in 2004. Medical schools with an AOA chapter may nominate one student for the fellowship.

“In the last decade, for every year that we have submitted an application, a student award has resulted over 80 percent of the time, placing us among the leaders of AOA chapters,” said Dr. Eugene Boisaubin, professor of internal medicine and AOA councilor.

Eraj received the AOA fellowship for his project, “Longitudinal Intra-patient Matched-Pair Analysis of Treated vs. Untreated Arteries Following Unilateral Radiation for Early Tonsillar Cancer: Dose-Response Assessment of Long-term Carotid Toxicity.”

“The basic premise was to study the dose-response relationship between radiation and carotid artery volume change, which may be related to radiation-related sequelae, such as stroke,” Eraj said.

Eraj’s mentor for the research project is Dr. Clifton David Fuller, assistant professor of radiation oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“Mr. Eraj’s research work is extremely important since it deals with how radiation therapy in head and neck cancers impacts the cardiovascular system, particularly in the carotid arteries,” Boisaubin explained. “Great advances are being made in treating devastating malignancies involving the head and neck using radiation and chemotherapy, and as more patients survive, unknown consequences may appear, including the impact upon the vascular system, including the potential for strokes or other cardiovascular insults. This research begins to analyze this connection with a goal of addressing how the vascular system is being impacted and ultimately if those impacts can be reduced.”

The fellowship will help fund Eraj’s time spent on the research and provide support for him to present his findings at an upcoming conference.

Looking to the future, Eraj said he hopes to have a career as a physician-scientist and will apply for a radiation oncology residency position. “I only hope I can be half as good a physician as my dad and practice radiation oncology in a manner that honors him,” he said.

AOA, the only national medical honor society, is a professional medical organization that recognizes and advocates for excellence in scholarship and the highest ideals in the profession of medicine. The top 25 percent of a medical school class is eligible for nomination to the society, and up to 16 percent may be elected based on leadership, character, community service, and professionalism.