Rowan medical student's studies are taking him far

Rowan medical student's studies are taking him far


By Jonathan Lai, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED: February 17, 2015

Halfway through his studies at Camden's Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Jonathan Kanen is leaving, flying 3,500 miles away.

Kanen has been named one of 40 U.S. recipients of the Gates Cambridge Scholarships program. An additional 55 students from outside the country each year receive grants to study at the University of Cambridge in any field.

As Rowan University's first Gates Cambridge scholar, Kanen, 27, will wrap up his second year of medical school before taking off for three years to study for a Ph.D. in psychology at Cambridge.

"The whole Gates thing started with the realization Cambridge was by far the best fit for me. . . . They are a complete exemplar of how I think new discoveries about mental illness will likely occur in a big way," Kanen, a native of Ridgewood, N.J., said, citing integration of various disciplines and types of research, including rodent and human studies.

"This multitiered, very interdisciplinary approach is happening in a very big way at Cambridge," he said.

A perfect place, then, for a medical student who hopes to work on cutting-edge research and practice psychiatry.

At Cambridge, Kanen will be joined by other Gates scholars from the region, including Elizabeth Ann Walsh, an alumna of New Jersey's Passaic County Community College. Others include Nicolette Taku, Jocelyn Perry, and Cassi Henderson from the University of Pennsylvania; Cameron Langford, Samuel Kim, and Laura Cooper from Princeton University; and Christopher Rae from Pennsylvania State University.

Kanen's interest in human behavior led him to study psychology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor's degree in 2009, but he still found himself seeking answers about the neural bases of psychiatric maladies such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

After Vassar, Kanen worked in a New York University lab that was studying the neural processes underlying the modification of memories of fear. That line of research may someday translate into treatment of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, said Daniela Schiller, a psychiatry and neuroscience professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine who was involved in the project as a student.

Kanen impressed Schiller and other researchers by going beyond simply following orders about important but tedious lab work.

"He noticed all sorts of things in the project that we didn't, so he managed to help us steer the project in the right direction. He had all the skills from someone you would expect from someone more mature," she said.

Drawn to Rowan because of its small-group learning environment, community-service mission, and location in Camden, Kanen has been tutoring middle school students in North Camden. Growing up playing baseball and saxophone, he said, he received lots of support and teaching not available to many of the students he has worked with.

After Cambridge, Kanen will return to Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, where he'll continue his service work while finishing his medical degree.

During one of his clinical experiences at the medical school, Kanen was involved with a suicidal patient.

"It was very confirmatory for me, in terms of why I came to medical school and why I'm interested in doing psychiatry," he said, "because I felt really compelled to see his treatment through."

"I also realized that I want to have the best possible explanation for what is going wrong with him, and what do we know right now, and what do we not know? And also try to come up with better solutions to help this guy stay alive and try to get back to a normal life."

That a-ha moment foreshadows Kanen's future bridging theory and application, said Paul Katz, dean of the medical school.

"At the very base of medicine is science, and what we as physicians need to do is be able to translate that science into the care of individuals in a competent and caring way," Katz said.

The Ph.D. will only help Kanen's career, Katz said, and, more important, will help him care for his patients.

"The real winners here are going to be the people who benefit from Jonathan having this transformational experience," Katz said.

Kanen's research at Cambridge will explore how the neurotransmitter serotonin affects disorders, both in how they develop and how they are treated.

"Serotonergic drugs are among the most common medications I will prescribe," he wrote to the Gates Cambridge program, "yet the precise role of serotonin in mental illness and its remediation is not completely understood."

Outside the lab, Kanen's skill with the saxophone led him around the globe as he spent months as a cruise ship musician - all over Europe, he said, but somehow never to the United Kingdom. In Camden, he's performed at medical school events; in New York, he was part of a band Schiller brought him into composed of neuroscientists performing original works about the brain, mind, and behavior.

"My dream job would be to be a psychiatrist in the year 2100, just because I realized some of the limitations and where the level of understanding we're at at the moment," he said.

For now, he'll pursue research with the hope of advancing the science and clinical knowledge "to get to the psychiatry of 2100 sooner."

"There's so much room for growth," he said. "The brain is the most mysterious organ; it's the most personal one. People are fascinated by it; it is who you are. And we're going to learn so much more about it by the time I retire, and I want to be a part of the discoveries."

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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Date Published: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 15:45
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