Skip to content

Two College of Medicine graduate students receive prestigious Penn State awards

Mason Breitzig and Mayura Dhamdhere recognized for impactful research

Two graduate students at Penn State College of Medicine have received the Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award as part of Penn State’s most prestigious annual graduate student recognition awards led by the Graduate School.

This award recognizes outstanding achievement in scholarship and professional accomplishment and highlights doctoral students whose dissertations will have the greatest impact.

Mason Breitzig, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology, and Mayura Dhamdhere, a doctoral candidate in biomedical sciences with a dual title in clinical and translational sciences, were named recipients of the award.

“Our graduate students tackle fundamental questions in biomedical research and public health sciences. It is truly inspiring to observe their talent and dedication to making discoveries that ultimately help improve human health,” said Daniela Zarnescu, PhD, associate dean for graduate education and post-doctoral training and professor of cellular and molecular physiology at the College of Medicine. “Mayura also finds time to contribute to the community, and Mason finds time to teach undergraduates at Elizabethtown College. These outstanding students epitomize the amazing caliber of the graduate trainees in the College of Medicine.”

Breitzig’s research is focused on developing new quality control metrics to enhance treatment practices and guidelines for depression and other mood disorders. Selecting effective treatment strategies for mood disorders remains a significant challenge for modern psychiatry. To address this, Breitzig developed the GCA-8, an algorithmic approach to evaluating whether real-world depression treatment matches evidence-based guidelines. His research showed that the innovative metric can identify gaps in treatment for future clinical research, practice and guideline development.

“My mental health research journey started with a budding interest in public health and later epidemiology,” Breitzig said. “By the time I arrived at Penn State, I was further specifying my interests in depression, related mental health disorders and clinical processes. My passion for enhancing public and professional awareness of these conditions was further fueled by reports and experiences shared by others about the immense burden borne by clinicians and the difficulties they faced in treating mood disorders.”

Breitzig’s mentors, Duanping Liao, MD, PhD, and Erika Saunders, MD, further helped him refine his research interests into what eventually became his dissertation on real-world clinical treatment of depression.

Breitzig recently collaborated with College of Medicine faculty on a multi-institutional proposal to expand GCA-8 tool and test it in diverse clinical populations. Part of this proposal aims to establish a pathway to large-scale health system deployment. Breitzig hopes that the GCA-8 will ultimately inspire an improvement in quality control, guideline development and outcomes for people with mental disorders.

The College is the perfect place for this type of research, he said, partly because of the collaborative interdisciplinary relationship between the departments of public health sciences and psychiatry and behavioral health.

“The College also has a strong track record in psychiatry and a rich patient registry. In order to conduct epidemiologic research, it is essential to have collaborators, or mentors in my case, from various fields and access to data to fuel the research,” Breitzig said. “The College had all of the above and more. Although COVID-19 presented some challenges during my first year, I still felt like I was a part of the Penn State community. That connection has only grown during my time here and will continue to do so as I pursue the next steps of my career.”

Breitzig has co-authored 26 peer-reviewed publications, including five as first author, and presented at four conferences. A nominator wrote that his research “stands to make a big impact on psychiatric practice in the U.S. His dissertation work is detail-oriented, critically considerate of existing literature to the utmost degree, and focused on real-world issues for mood disorders.”

Dhamdhere’s research goal is to understand the mechanisms behind Neuroblastoma, a common childhood cancer, with an aim of developing efficient treatment. Roughly half of diagnosed children have advanced stage metastatic disease, and many of these do not respond to the current combinations of therapies, often resulting in relapsed tumors. Her work pioneered a new genetic regulator, termed IGF2BP1, that is associated with neuroblastoma progression, and she is now exploring ways to target this as a therapeutic approach.

“Since my undergrad, I was always inclined toward studying the in-depth molecular basis behind diseases, which led me to do internships at several research labs focusing on infection, immunology and cancer progression,” Dhamdhere said. “During my time at MD Anderson Cancer Center, I got an exposure to the intriguing and complicated questions faced in cancer, which built a passion in me to work toward the betterment of cancer therapeutics, which has strengthened even more while pursuing my PhD work.”

Dhamdhere’s research can help to develop improved treatments for these clinically resistant Neuroblastomas. Her dissertation project has also led to new modeling techniques that will greatly benefit the neuroblastoma research community.

The College is closely connected to Penn State Cancer Institute and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Dhamdhere noted, and this connection – as well as the ongoing cancer research in basic and translational science – was key in her decision to apply for graduate school here.

“Along with the wonderful faculty, the College also offered the clinical and translational dual title that was of great interest to me, as it provided a clinical perspective and aligned with my area of interest,” she said. “I cannot imagine there could have been a better place than the College of Medicine. It has been a wonderful experience. The College has offered me a lot, and many people including the faculty and my advisor, have helped me through this journey.”

Dhamdhere has authored or co-authored five peer-reviewed papers and presented at eight conferences. One nominator wrote, “Throughout her graduate studies, Mayura demonstrated her creative and independent thinking as well as her ability to write research papers and grant applications that are both intriguing from a basic science point of view and also highly translatable.”

Read the full Penn State News story here

If you're having trouble accessing this content, or would like it in another format, please email Penn State Health Marketing & Communications.