Pioneering Research Earns Med Student the Prestigious Howard Hughes Fellowship

Michael Dong headshot

Medical student Michael Dong will use his fellowship for a year of study in UVA’s Kipnis Lab. (Photo courtesy of the UVA Health System)

A promising medical student’s exploration of unknown territory within the central nervous system has received a major boost from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which has awarded him a prestigious one-year fellowship to focus exclusively on his research.

University of Virginia School of Medicine student Michael Dong, 23, of McLean, is one of only 79 students nationwide selected this year for the institute’s Medical Research Fellows Program. The program provides a stipend and other funding that allows med students to take a year off from their studies to engage in in-depth, mentored biomedical research.

Dong will conduct his research in the lab of UVA’s Jonathan Kipnis, who made international headlines when he discovered previously unknown vessels connecting the brain and the immune system – a connection long thought not to exist. Dong’s research continues that line of work, seeking to determine if similar vessels exist elsewhere in the central nervous system.

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“I have great mentors who have motivated me to pursue a career as a physician-scientist. It’s exciting to return to the Kipnis lab to explore the potential in our research,” said Dong, who also received his undergraduate degree from UVA. “This award will allow me to immerse myself in interests that were sparked in my medical education.”

Pioneering Research

Kipnis, chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the UVA School of Medicine, recalled how Dong quickly made an impression upon arriving in the lab. “Michael was really incredible,” said Kipnis, who also heads UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia. “He came for six weeks, and we were trying to look for lymphatic vessels in other areas of the central nervous system. He was able to develop a technique that allows us to look into areas where we were not looking before.”

He noted that Dong brought a palpable excitement about the work and has been eager for mentorship. “He has been working with a very talented postdoctoral fellow, soon to be junior faculty, Jasmin Herz,” Kipnis said. “So they were working together, and what was beautiful is that this kid had the bug of science. You could see it. He got really excited about it. He’s passionate.”

Kipnis predicts Dong’s upcoming year in the lab will ultimately benefit Dong’s future patients. “In this one year, at the very least, he will understand the critical thinking we expect of our graduate students, and I expect he will probably take things less for granted when he’s a doctor,” he said. “This is somebody I would love to be seen by when he’s practicing medicine. You want people with open-mindedness, with wider knowledge and with an appreciation that there is a lot that we don’t know.”

About the Fellowship Program

In its 28 years, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s fellowship program has helped more than 1,700 medical, veterinary and dental students establish their careers. “The Med Fellows Program allows exceptional MD, DVM and DDS students to effectively shift course and conduct rigorous research at top institutions throughout the country,” said David Asai, senior director in science education at the institute. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for future physicians, veterinarians and dentists to explore the intersection of medicine and scientific discovery, and we hope that each student comes away further empowered to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.”

The institute seeks to advance scientific research and education in the United States. It also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of research. The group is headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md.


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Josh Barney

UVA Health