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Research is paramount at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), as evidenced by numerous activities at the command throughout April, which is Research and Innovation Month.

As part of the annual festivities, interns, residents, fellows and staff showcased their ingenuity, participating in a number of research competitions. During a two-day Research and Innovation Symposium, April 22 to 23, award winners presented their projects and were recognized by command leadership. The symposium also featured presentations by keynote speakers, discussing advancements in health care. The medical center will continue to highlight research later this year, hosting a Research Summit in the summer, during which diverse researchers from the National Capital Region will share current work and partnership opportunities.

“It’s all about making the world better for our patients, and research is a key component of that,” explained WRNMMC Director Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Jeffrey Clark, during the two-day symposium.

Whether in a lab, in a clinical setting, or as part of an improvement process, research at WRNMMC is “proactively patient friendly,” Clark said.

“We’re trying to answer questions, so we can provide better care for our patients, or improve a system or process, that will make it better for our patients,” the general continued. “Everyone who competed should be very proud of what they’ve done. It’s a privilege to stand among you. What you have done is hard. It requires work. It requires dedication, and you should all be very proud of that.”

The general said he is also proud to be part of an organization that not only conducts innovative research, but also pauses to recognize those who contributed.

This year, there were more than 150 submissions to the Research and Innovation competitions, said Col. (Dr.) Michael Nelson, director for Education Training and Research at WRNMMC. Interns, fellows, residents and staff submitted their work to the following poster competitions: Evidence Based Practice-Patient Safety, Quality and Process Improvement, and Case Reports. They could also enter into the Bailey K. Ashford (BKA) and Robert A. Phillips (RAP) competitions.

Nominated by program directors, the BKA Clinical Research Award was established by Col. Marcel E. Conrad, the first chief of Clinical Investigation at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The award is named in honor of the Army physician whose research is credited with helping solve the problem of hookworm-induced anemia in Puerto Rico during the early 1900s, Nelson said. Participants presented their work orally, and were recognized for their work in either clinical or laboratory research. The BKA winners are Army Maj. Ryan Heitmann (laboratory) and Army Capt. Lauren Greer (clinical).

The RAP Award is a self-nominated award, recognizing research excellence from military and Department of Defense civilians, at the resident and staff/fellow level, for work on an approved research project. The award is named in honor of the Navy officer and researcher noted for his work to help cholera victims. The following were named winners: Air Force Capt. Daniel Adams (RAP fellow/staff lab winner); Army Capt. Donald Hope (RAP intern/resident lab winner); Army Capt. Vito Cirigliano (RAP staff clinical winner); and Navy Lt. Michele Gage (RAP Intern/resident clinical winner). Army Maj. Katherine Philla won the RAP staff/fellow clinical award, and the RAP case report poster award for staff/fellow. Army Lt. James Contestable won the RAP case report poster award for intern/resident.

Research projects focused on a variety of topics, such as cancer treatment, wound care, rare brain disorders, brain injuries, autoimmune disorders, liver injuries and vocal cord dysfunction.

“This was a diverse, educational competition. It really showcases what we do, and how we’re really putting patients front and center,” Nelson said, at the symposium. “You all played a tremendous part in doing that.”

The science presented during this competition will be and has been published, and is really making a difference across the world, Nelson continued, adding how impressive it is to be surrounded by such elite individuals.

Winners expressed their excitement upon receiving their awards, including Philla, a pediatrician. Honored for the recognition, she said both her case report and RAP project represent her work over the span of a three-year fellowship, in treating pediatric patients with diabetes.

“It is very meaningful to have that effort recognized, and to have hospital leaders and staff take the time out of their day to be part of that recognition is an important validation,” Philla said. She added the importance of research. “It keeps us clinically curious, up-to-date on current understanding and pushes us to discover or uncover novel therapies that may benefit our patients.”

Additionally, she said research is an opportunity to explore areas outside of the clinic – research labs, collaborations with other departments or institutions – while fostering an appreciation for the scientific process.

Heitmann, an obstetrician-gynecologist, shared similar sentiments. Completing his fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, Heitmann’s research evaluates immune tolerance mechanisms, and embryo implantation.

“Research allows us to investigate more fully our questions about how to better serve and care for the patients we come in contact with on a daily basis,” he said. “Having the ability to answer clinical or laboratory questions ultimately furthers our understanding of the complex nature of medicine, which consequently allows us to provide top-notch, evidence based care.”

Heitmann said he was surprised when he learned he won the BKA award.

“I still feel very honored and humbled to have been chosen for the BKA, knowing the high-quality research that is nominated and presented every year,” Heitmann said. “The competition is a great way to showcase the important research in all aspects of medicine that is conducted here at WRNMMC. Research isn’t easy, so having a forum that allows for presentation and appreciation of that hard work is important to keep individuals excited and engaged in continuing the process.”

Contestable was also surprised to learn he won the intern/resident case report award.

“The number and quality of posters this year was impressive, and I did not think I would be picked to even give a presentation as a finalist,” Contestable said. To be chosen among the finalists was even more surprising, he added. “I was very happy to have represented my command and internship program.”

An intern in the Transitional Year internship program, Contestable’s research focused on neuromyelitis optica, a rare central nervous system disease affecting the optic nerves and spinal cord, causing eye pain and vision loss. He said research allows clinicians to be more effective in their treatment and answer important questions. He added the competition energizes residents and staff to participate in research.

“Collegial competition is a great way to have fun and learn along the way,” he said.