Graduate Student Gains 'Vital' Experience with VITAL Alliance Researching COVID-19

Martha Sim, MD, a graduate student at the College of Medicine, knew it was possible she would witness a pandemic in her lifetime, but she did not expect it to happen so early in her research career. Yet in 2020, COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe.

Dr. Sim currently works in the laboratory of Jeremy Wood, PhD, assistant professor in the department of internal medicine. Her initial work involved the study of thrombosis in HIV patients as part of the Virus-Induced Thrombosis Alliance (VITAL), a team within the College of Medicine’s Alliance Research Initiative studying the correlation between infectious and cardiovascular diseases. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sim transitioned her work to focus on blood clotting in patients with the virus.

“The VITAL team gives me firsthand experience in collaborating with multiple labs in different departments, including the clinical research side, as well as learning on how basic research results can be translated into clinical relevance,” Dr. Sim said. “I have always been interested in basic research, and I think it became increasingly clear that through collaboration by researchers of different expertise, we are able to achieve more understanding and can also increase research efficiency.”

Dr. Sim always had a keen interest in studying infectious diseases. After earning her medical degree in 2013 in Indonesia, her initial work was in an emergency department at a local hospital, but she came to UK to earn an education that would expand her role as a physician-scientist.

At UK, she pursued her master’s degree and worked with Erin Garcia, PhD, to study bacterial pathogenesis. In her graduate work she narrowed her focus into more viral infection and immunology-oriented research projects. She worked in the labs of Rebecca Dutch, PhD, vice dean for research, and Sidney Whiteheart, PhD, who introduced her to studying the role of platelets in HIV infection.

Now, in Dr. Wood’s lab, she has made important contributions to lab work studying the virus that caused a global pandemic, and minus the full shutdown at the beginning, she has been able to continue that work.

“Dr. Sim jumped very quickly to studying COVID-19,” Dr. Wood said. “She has a previous medical degree and is interested in a career as a physician-scientist, so we viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for her to do patient-oriented research.”

Dr. Sim’s tenure at UK has provided her valuable skills to pursue her dissertation research in coagulation and viral inflammation. The experience also solidified her interest in becoming a physician-scientist. In her upcoming career, she aims to use her clinical and research background to work in a hospital or academic institution.