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Two medical students receive Dorothy Wolff Fellowships for projects focusing on otolaryngology

By Kylee Denesha

UMass Medical School Communications

March 31, 2021

Two School of Medicine students have been awarded Dorothy Wolff Fellowships in Otolaryngology Research from UMass Medical School. Third-year students Sara Holmes and Maimuna Ahmad will receive funding for independent projects that will begin this summer and continue through the academic year.

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Maimuna Ahmad and Sara Holmes

The fellowships honor the late Dorothy Wolff, PhD, a pioneer in otologic pathology who worked in the mid-20th century during a revolution in ear surgery and set the stage for women in otopathology. Fellowship students will take dedicated time away from their clinical duties to pursue otolaryngology research. Topics may include basic science projects, clinical research or translational work that relates to diseases or disorders of the head and neck.

Holmes will conduct a clinical evaluation of high frequency bone conduction thresholds. She will complete her study at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston, looking closely at changes to bones in the middle ear and how they relate to hearing loss. According to Holmes, high-frequency hearing loss, or presbycusis, is often presents in older adult patients. She will analyze whether this condition is associated with age-related bone structure changes in the middle ear.

“Our plan is to recruit Mass Eye and Ear patients and bring them through a range of hearing tests including laser doppler vibrometry, air conduction hearing and wideband acoustic transmittance to track degeneration to the eardrum. These tests would help us determine the changes to the bones in the middle ear and whether they are related to the high frequency hearing loss,” Holmes said.

She will also compare the hearing of participants without presbycusis to the hearing of those diagnosed with the condition.

Ahmad’s study, at Mass Eye and Ear and UMass Memorial Medical Center, will focus on cognitive function in patients living with vestibular disorders. A vestibular disorder or disease directly impacts the system responsible for providing the brain with information about motion, head position and special orientation that allows for maintaining balance, posture and head stabilization. Common results of this disease or disorder include vertigo and brain fog.

“Conditions like this are often related to different disease processes that affect our balance system,” Ahmad said. “What we plan to examine is how the impairment manifests itself when patients are placed in situations; for instance, where they have to navigate a space. One interesting thing we plan to do is a virtual reality test that will challenge the patient’s ability to use certain visual and spatial cues. We’ll also implement some neuropsychological testing to analyze their performance in different cognitive domains.”

Ahmad hopes her study will provide more detail on how vestibular disorders and cognitive function are connected, as well as aid in directing forms of therapy, rehabilitation and vestibular implants.

Holmes said her mother inspired her to study otolaryngology.

“My mom was sick with head and neck cancer for 10 years. She passed away last April,” Holmes said. “I witnessed some of her treatment as I was starting my career in medicine. That experience encouraged me to pursue this field and care for patients with needs much like my mother’s.”

Ahmad also hopes to go into the field.

“Third-year student rotations expose us to the various areas of medicine,” Ahmad said. “Through my rotations, I quickly recognized my interest in specialty surgery. Ear, nose and throat allows for great patient continuity in clinic, and you get to analyze the finer parts of the human anatomy. I’m excited to commit to this field for years to come.”