Dr. Martin standing next to Khadija Soufi pointing at something

School of Medicine students gain experience working on new study

Researchers hope to establish better tools for management of spinal cord condition


A new study looking at spinal cord function is providing UC Davis School of Medicine students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience conducting clinical research.

For the study, researchers and medical students are working with patients diagnosed with degenerative cervical myelopathy, which results from compression of the spinal cord in the neck. Symptoms of cervical myelopathy may include problems with fine motor skills, pain or stiffness in the neck, loss of balance, and trouble walking. The condition is often underdiagnosed and referral to spine specialists is often late when patients already have an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury.

Khadija Houda Soufi examining patient’s leg as he sits in chair
Medical student Khadija Houda Soufi performs a physical test with a patient

“Degenerative cervical myelopathy is poorly understood, but also one of the more common central nervous system pathologies and one of the conditions neurosurgeons operate on the most,” explained Allan Martin, assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery and principle investigator of the study.  “Because the condition is often mis-diagnosed, we are trying to evaluate the cervical spinal cord to create measures that we can use in clinical practice to establish better tools for diagnosis and monitoring over time.”

Individuals participating in the study are either healthy subjects or patients with degenerative cervical myelopathy that have received an early diagnosis of the condition. They answer questionnaires about their ability to function and go through physical tests to comprehensively measure functions of the spinal cord, including hand coordination, strength, sensation, and balance.

“We are trying to understand what the normal range of findings is for healthy subjects, how they compare against patients with myelopathy, and see what happens to myelopathy patients over time,” Martin said. “Depending on what the data shows, we will have a better idea of who needs surgery and who does not.”

Value of research opportunities for medical students

Clinical studies are an integral part of learning new techniques, discovering new treatments and advancing the field of medicine.

They can also be an important pathway for medical students to advance their career and explore different specialties.

“Involvement in research as a medical student provides a wealth of opportunity, for instance learning about the peer-review process, the audit cycle, critical appraisal and analytical skills,” Martin said. “There's so much you can do in medicine and gaining this experience helps students learn the direction they want to go in their careers.”

Throughout the study, Martin has had five UC Davis medical students volunteer to assist him in data collection and analysis, writing abstracts and conducting neurological exams.

“Everything we do in medicine is based on research and being a part of this study has been invaluable,” said Khadija Houda Soufi, a second-year medical student at UC Davis. “I'm personally interested in going to into academia and doing this work has shown me that this is a field of medicine I may want to pursue.”

Another valuable benefit of working on clinical studies are the connections and relationships medical students can forge with professors.

“One of the perks of volunteering for this study has been working with Dr. Martin. He has so broadly expanded my clinical knowledge of neuropathies, and even allowed me to take lead on projects,” said Tess Perez, a second-year medical student. “His support and mentorship have and will continue to open an abundance of research opportunities, whether that's publishing manuscripts or presenting at conferences. He is constantly looking out for the team's best interest.”

Everything we do in medicine is based on research and being a part of this study has been invaluable.”Khadija Houda Soufi

Hands-on learning at UC Davis School of Medicine

School of Medicine students have several options for structuring a research experience within the context of their medical studies. It can take the form of brief independent study, a summer experience, a longitudinal experience within the medical school curriculum, or a second degree program (Master's Degree or Ph.D.).

“Providing research opportunities enriches the medical school experience for students by enabling them to work directly with faculty and pursue topics of interest in a wide spectrum of disciplines,” said Martin. “It allows them to explore different disciplines and find their passion within medicine.”

Recently, U.S. News & World Report's 2023 graduate school rankings placed the School of Medicine at No. 51 in research in the nation.

“I've always thought about research from the context of what it can do for patients and how it can better patient experiences,” said Soufi. “I decided to go to medical school to help people and if I can help a patient better understand their condition through my research and have a better outcome in the long run then I have have done my job.”