'Unwavering Determination' Takes Physician to Researcher and Resident

‘Unwavering Determination’ Takes Physician to Researcher and Resident

After earning her medical degree in Myanmar (formerly Burma,) Zin Mar Htun said she knew how to care for sick people – but didn’t know how to conduct research that would find ways to prevent their disease. So she came to UCF to become a physician scientist – and is now onto her residency training in Chicago.

Htun was one of 19 graduate students who presented their research at the May 8 Burnett School of Biomedical Science’s 12th Annual Graduate Research Symposium. The Masters and Ph.D. candidates presented their thesis research on a breadth of subjects – from repairing ailing hearts with stem cells to understanding the perfect microbial environment for brewing beer.

Htun’s research examined whether patients with Crohn’s disease – a debilitating inflammatory bowel disease – have a genetic pre-disposition to get the condition. She said gastroenterology has always fascinated her but she needed to come to the U.S. to achieve her dreams.

“Being from a Third World country, I didn’t have experience with research,” she said. “I was good at diagnosing, but not at finding solutions. Research is about finding solutions to a problem, not just treating it.”

She heard about UCF from a friend and fellow medical school alumnae, Dr. Nway Lei, who is doing her internal medicine residency at the UCF College of Medicine’s partnership program with the Osceola Regional and Orlando VA medical centers. “Every time we talked, it was all UCF, UCF, UCF,” Htun said. “I wanted to come to UCF to get the research experience I could not get in my country and to take me further in medicine.”

She arrived in 2015. She is defending her Master’s thesis on May 15 and on June 19 begins her internal medicine residency at Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. After her three-year residency, the 27-year-old doctor hopes to do a fellowship to become a gastroenterologist.

Her UCF research experience in right in line with that goal. Htun is working with Dr. Saleh Naser, professor of medicine and associate director of graduate studies at the Burnett School, whose lab is involved in a Phase III clinical trial to treat Crohn’s patients with long-term antibiotics. Naser believes the bacterium Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis, known as MAP, causes Crohn’s disease. Cows can carry the bacterium in their intestines and can spread it to milk and ground meat.

As part of the study, Naser and Htun are looking at whether patients who get Crohn’s have a genetic predisposition that causes them to get the disease after being exposed to MAP. As part of the clinical trial, Naser’s lab is receiving tissue and blood samples from Crohn’s patients at more than 95 clinics worldwide. Htun’s research found that almost 82 percent of patients who tested positive for MAP also had a specific gene mutation. If that connection can be verified, scientists hope to develop a treatment patients with the genetic mutation could take to prevent Crohn’s.

Naser noted that his student has received several presentation awards for her research and called her “a true testament to our graduate Master’s program.”

“ZinMar impresses me so much with her focused goals, hard work and unwavering determination,” he said.