Spotlights & Profiles

Faculty & Staff Spotlights

Kacena sees the lab as a place to practice skills as researchers -- and professionals

Nov. 21, 2013

Since joining the IU School of Medicine in 2007, Melissa Kacena, Ph.D., associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the school, has worked tirelessly to advance her role as not only a researcher but also an educator.

Melissa Kacena

Melissa Kacena, Ph.D., with Nicholas Lesh, Tomas Meijome and Andrew Engle in the lab. Lesh and Engle are IUPUI undergraduates. Meijome is an IUPUI graduate studying at the University of Pennsylvania. | Juan Guzman

Dr. Kacena, who has become well known for the large number of interns she welcomes each year into her bustling lab in the Fesler Hall Building, works hard to provide each student a chance to strengthen both their research skills and their sense of professionalism -- a lesson intended to guide them throughout their lives no matter what their chosen field.

“I think there needs to be great emphasis and awareness on professional etiquette and development among students in the lab," said Dr. Kacena, whose research focuses on developing more effective therapies and compounds to treat broken bones. “I don’t just focus on the research; I think it’s really about making my interns and researchers better people, so that they are better suited for their future careers."

Undergraduate and graduate students who work in Dr. Kacena's lab come from a wide range of programs, including the IU School of Medicine's Undergraduate Research for Prospective Physician-Scientists Program, Student Research Program in Academic Medicine and Life-Health Sciences Internship Program, the IUPUI Center for Research and Learning's Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement and Undergraduate Research Opportunity programs and Project SEED, a summer research program for local high school students. Both Project Seed and SRPinAM are sponsored in part by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

Students learn about careers in design and construction through the ACE program.

Members of Dr. Kacena's lab, including this past summer's interns, are, from left to right, front row, seated, Yinghua Cheng, M.D., Ph.D., a research associate; Lesch, Engle, Monique Bethel, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow; and back row, standing, Dr. Kacena; Meijome and Naomie Olivos, a Ph.D. student with the IU School of Medicine Biomedical Gateway Graduate Program. | Juan Guzman

Moreover, since many participants have limited laboratory experience going into what's often their first internship, Dr. Kacena aims to give each a small segment of a larger research project, allowing them to delve a bit deeper into a specific area than they might normally, while also ensuring their tasks remain general enough to assist in future lab assignments in other disciplines.

“There's so much you can learn from being part of a research or internship program,” said Tomas Meijome, an M.D./Ph.D. student studying at the University of Pennsylvania, who served as an intern in Dr. Kacena's lab this summer following his senior year at the School of Science at IUPUI. “There are two aspects to it: You’re getting a mentor who is your support system, and you’re getting that research mindset early on.”

The role of mentors in her growth as a researcher was an important factor in her decision to work closely with students beyond the classroom in her own career, added Dr. Kacena, who attributes much of her professional success to her professors at the University of Colorado, where she earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in science, as well as the Yale University School of Medicine, where she served as a post-doctoral fellow.

Melissa Kacena

Dr. Kacena with Engle and Bethel. | Juan Guzman

Yet a belief in the benefits of working alongside faculty doesn't mean she keeps discipline lax. Dr. Kacena expects a great deal from her interns -- requiring they take their independent tasks seriously, participate in weekly lab meetings, and, after they've spent enough time learning about each others work, collaborate and contribute intellectually to their colleagues' assignment.

One other important rule, which occasionally takes students slightly aback, is a "zero tolerance" policy on smart phones during meetings.

With many past interns going on to medical school or postgraduate education, Dr. Kacena doesn't plan to stop welcoming students in her lab any time soon. Yet knowing that the research field is not for everyone, she also reiterates that her goal isn't to simply to cultivate strong research skills but to install a larger sense of discipline and motivation -- to encourage hard work and the desire to learn as much as possible from every opportunity.

“I am not just a research mentor; I am an overall mentor teaching my students and interns life skills,” she said. “We need to instill these skills and attitudes in everyone -- our future doctors, researchers, and professionals alike.”

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