Mentorship helps graduate student win prestigious award to heal horses with stem cells

laurenA lifelong love of racehorses first brought Dr. Lauren Schnabel to Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to become an equine surgeon. Now expanding her skills as a fourth year PhD student in the graduate field of comparative and biomedical sciences, Schnabel has won a career development award that will pave her path forward as a translational clinical scientist. Her interest in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine has the potential to unlock the power of stem cells to help horses heal.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives the Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development (K08) Award to develop promising medical scientists into independent investigators and fill faculty gaps in health areas where experts are in short supply. Schnabel’s award includes five years of research and stipend funds she can take to any institution, which will position her well when she enters the job market. It also lays a framework for her growth by requiring a strong support structure. Selection is heavily weighted on the quality of applicants’ mentors, resource infrastructure, and personal development plans.

“I’m fortunate to be at Cornell, where there’s a lively culture of interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Schnabel. “Experts from different fields are excited to come together to tackle an issue. That’s helped not only in getting this award, but in studying stem cells. There are so many angles involved, from basic biology and genetics to immunology and clinical practice. We have people at the forefront of these fields willing to work together.”

labSchnabel will use the award to build an independent research program developing specialized stem cells and testing their ability to regenerate tendons in injured horses. Her faculty mentors include Dr. Lisa Fortier, a scientist and large animal orthopedic surgeon established in the fields of tendon repair and stem cell therapies, and Dr. John Schimenti, expert in the fields of genetics and stem cell biology. Drs. Douglas Antczak, Julia Felippe, and Cynthia Leifer will contribute expertise in basic and equine immunology and open access to Antczak’s special herd of Cornell horses: the only group in the world proven to have truly different immune profiles.

These faculty have outstanding records for training graduate students and mentoring postdoctoral candidates, yet the cascade of mentorship doesn’t stop at Schnabel. A gifted teacher herself, Schnabel has mentored veterinary students in her projects, including Lynn Pezzanite ’14, who went on to get independent funding for further research, and dual-degree student Jennifer Cassano ’13, who like Schnabel aspires to become a clinical faculty member.

lauren“It’s been a great mentorship experience for me,” said Schnabel, who is simultaneously developing her gift for teaching as a Cornell Biological and Biomedical Sciences Graduate Research and Teaching Fellow.

With guidance from teaching mentors and student feedback, she has taught veterinary students and designed a new lecture and laboratory on regenerative therapies for the students. She has also developed a new clinical assessment tool to more objectively measure students’ surgical skills and provide formal feedback.

“I like passing on the knowledge I have in a way that’s interesting to students,” said Schnabel. “Taking what we’re doing in the lab and sharing it with students to show them how we can affect change in the clinics brings together everything that being a professor is about. It’s what my mentors have shown me and I hope to pass on as a professor.”