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Undergraduate research opportunities launch BYU grad to Yale School of Medicine

BYU is No. 5 in the country for students who go on to earn doctorates

Jacob Mabey portrait
Jacob Mabey majored in exercise science at BYU and is now pursuing a MD at Yale School of Medicine.

As a BYU undergraduate in exercise science, Jacob Mabey accrued publications a graduate student could be proud of: before wrapping up his time at BYU this year, he’d authored two research papers on bariatric surgery and was a co-author of two other studies.

But he won’t be caught resting on his laurels.

“Those studies really motivated me to use what I learned to do better next time,” said Mabey, now a first-year student at Yale School of Medicine. “They gave me an eye toward future research design.”

Mabey credits much of his research abilities and rigorous preparation for Yale to the “phenomenal” mentorship he received from several BYU faculty, most notably exercise science professor Lance Davidson.

As a pre-med student, Mabey knew that research experience would be critical for his medical school application. And he was in the right place: at BYU, known for providing outstanding mentored research opportunities for students, about a third of undergraduates participate in mentored research. Largely for that reason, the university ranks fifth in the country for students who go on to earn Ph.Ds.

Mabey chose Davidson’s research group on chronic metabolic disease after first scouring all of the BYU life science professors’ profiles and then reading many of Davidson’s published papers. Drawn to the clinical applicability of Davidson’s work, Mabey emailed the professor a summary of what he’d learned from reading his publications, with a request to be his research assistant.

Studying up and reaching out paid off: as part of Davidson’s team, Mabey wasn’t so much a research assistant as a team leader.

Leading two collaborative projects investigating the long-term effects of bariatric surgery (specifically gastric bypass surgery), Mabey coordinated research activities, directed hypothesis development, designed statistical models and did most of the write up. Both papers were published in a high-impact obesity journal: Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases.

“The professors in the group were gracious to let me lead them,” said Mabey. “They’re amazing researchers, so it was a lot to live up to, but it was a great impetus to really stretch myself.”

For one of his projects, Mabey and the team explored why those who have had bariatric surgery are at a known elevated risk of suicide. They compared patients’ suicide-related thoughts and behaviors to those of individuals with severe obesity who didn’t receive the surgery, examining 12 years of data on the two groups. The researchers found that surgery patients’ higher suicidality could be explained by less improvement in health-related quality of life—a patient’s perception of their mental or physical pain—after surgery.

Figures from a journal publication.
Figures from the journal publication on gut microbiota.

For the other study Mabey authored, the researchers used stool samples to analyze the gut bacteria of those who had undergone bariatric surgery up to 13 years earlier.

The first study of its kind to look at patients more than a decade post-surgery, the research showed, among other things, that patients whose type 2 diabetes went into remission after surgery had increased levels of the bacteria A. muciniphila, which contributes to a healthier intestinal lining.

“Gut bacteria make a big difference in metabolic health,” Mabey said, “and it’s intriguing to consider that A. muciniphila could potentially be used to treat diseases that frequently occur with obesity in the future, given these findings.”

Professor Davidson, who called Mabey an “extraordinary” research assistant and a “productive collaborator and colleague,” noted how much mileage Mabey’s undergraduate projects gave him for his future.

“Jacob could choose whatever medical school he wanted,” Davidson said, “not only because he was a brilliant candidate, but because he could converse intelligently about his experiences in research during the interview process.”

Mabey has big ambitions and wide-ranging interests for his medical career—at the moment he’s fascinated by interventional radiology and various surgical specialties. His undergraduate experiences will continue to influence his research plans going forward, as well as the way he himself teaches future students.

“Dr. Davidson is the sort of mentor anyone wishes they could have,” he observed. “The amount of support, trust and autonomy he gave me to take on big responsibilities has shaped my view of the kind of mentor I want to be in the long term.”