Zarifkar adds genetics research and EMT service to pre-med training

As a pre-med student aiming to become an emergency room doctor, Mehrdad Zarifkar ’09 benefited from many opportunities at Cornell, including a two-block Cornell Fellowship at Translational Genomics (TGen) in Phoenix, dedicated MCAT preparation, and reading groups with President Garner. Mehrdad in FirestationBut he also left his mark on campus and the community through his service as a volunteer firefighter/EMT, the chair of the Performing Arts and Activities Council, and more.

What does TGen do?
TGen has several research divisions, among them the neurogenomics division which engages in genetics research of neurological diseases. I worked in the neurobehavioral research unit, which researches diseases such as Alzheimer’s and autism.

What was your research focused on?
The APOE E4 gene has been implicated as a risk factor in late onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Determining an individual’s APOE status (genotyping) is a slow and error prone process. My TGen advisor, Dr. Huentelman, thought of a way to use next generation sequencing to read the APOE sequence, and it was my job to test this concept. I worked on two different methods of amplifying and barcoding the samples. One method is more cost effective, whereas the other seems less prone to error but is considerably more costly.

What was best about the internship?
I performed cutting edge research with advanced appliances and some of the best reagents available. I was also able to apply what I learned over the course of my biochemistry degree, while learning a lot of new techniques and insights into research on a more advanced level.

What was it like serving as a firefighter/EMT?
As volunteers, we don’t have schedules of when we are “on”, and we can get paged out anytime. I was one of the EMTs for the fire department, and we were often the first on the scene. I was able to do things like intubate and perform CPR, and in one case by being able to get there fast we basically saved a man’s life. I also helped fight three major fires in one block during my junior year. I was also the public relations person for the fire department, and I started birthday party events and more hands-on events for local children.

What did you learn while volunteering for the fire department?
It made me a lot calmer person. If you can handle a situation like a fire, it changes your stress level and helps you approach other challenges in a more problem-based way. Another unexpected bonus was that it connected me to the community in a different way and gave me a whole different perspective on Mount Vernon than most students get.

Besides your internship, did you benefit from the Dimensions Program?
Yes, the pre-med training was excellent. For $75, I received in-depth MCAT training which is the most important thing in preparing for medical school. I also participated in the Dimensions Reading group, and through the Berry Center I also joined President Garner’s reading group twice.

What were some of the highlights of serving as chair of the Performing Arts and Activities Council?
We went from an organization where nobody really wanted to step up to having to turn people away. I basically helped reinfuse energy and money into the group.

What was one of your favorite PAAC events?
Bringing Patch Adams to campus was my idea. I worked with (former Dimensions Coordinator) Bobbi Buckner-Bentz to make it happen, and we got the University of Iowa Medical School and Mercy Care involved. It was a pretty cool synergy; PAAC did a lot of the footwork and Dimensions footed the bill.

What’s next?
I’m planning to pursue research opportunities for a year before applying to med school in 2010.

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