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Undergrad conference explores physician-scientist’s path

Aug. 8, 2019, 8:49 AM

Students from eight universities and programs including Vanderbilt University attended the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Conference hosted last week by VUMC and sponsored by the Division of Kidney, Urologic and Hematologic Diseases of the National Institutes of Health. (photo by Anne Rayner)

by Bill Snyder

Physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to help solve some of the nation’s most formidable health challenges, Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told college students from across the country last week during a conference hosted by VUMC.

Those challenges include poor health outcomes and low life expectancy despite skyrocketing health care spending.

Physician-scientists play a role in health care “no one else can play because we understand it broadly — all the way from the molecular side to the way it manifests in health,” said Balser, a Vanderbilt-trained physician-scientist who also is Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Balser spoke during the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Conference sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, Division of Kidney, Urologic and Hematologic (KUH) Diseases. The conference was organized by Julie Hudson, MD, MA, vice president of Medical Center Relations, and Billy Hudson, PhD, Elliott V. Newman Professor of Medicine.

More than 125 students from eight universities and programs including Vanderbilt attended this year’s conference. The students participated in a summer research program supported by KUH and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

In her remarks, Nancy Brown, MD, the Hugh J. Morgan Professor of Medicine and chair of the Department, made the case that “physician-scientists are better physicians by virtue of being scientists.”

As an example, Brown described how April Pettit, MD, MPH, cultured a sample of a patient’s cerebral spinal fluid in 2012 when he failed to respond to conventional therapy for presumed bacterial meningitis. Turned out he had a fungal infection.

The man’s family reported he’d been given a steroid injection at a local clinic. Eventually health officials discovered that batches of contaminated steroid medication had infected hundreds of patients throughout the country.

Pettit, now an associate professor of Medicine at VUMC, “put together what another might have missed because of her training as a scientist,” Brown said. “It’s about having curiosity and asking the right questions.”

Other speakers included Gregory Germino, MD, deputy director of the NIDDK; Tracy Rankin, PhD, MPH, director of Career Development and Training for Kidney and Urologic Diseases in the institute and a Vanderbilt-trained scientist; and Robert Star, MD, director of the KUH Diseases Division.

In his remarks, Balser described the linkage of VUMC’s electronic health system to its DNA databank, BioVU, and how phenome-wide association studies enable researchers to identify genetic variations associated with various health conditions.

“The physician-scientist career is just a wonderful way to live your life,” he said. But “this is a long journey. I was 37 when I finished my training.”

“Don’t be daunted” by the length of his training, Brown responded. “What happened to him after he was 37 was like that,” she said with a snap of her fingers. “Sometimes the longer you invest at the beginning of your career, the more rapid the trajectory later.”

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