Tell me a little about yourself.
I am originally from Seattle. I received my undergrad degree in bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and then spent 4.5 years in an immunology lab at Seattle Children’s Hospital performing high fidelity genome editing research before CRISPER/CAS9. The idea was to develop technologies that could translate into other therapies such as stem cell therapies and CAR-T cell therapies. I then decided to go to medical school. I think the idea at that time was that I wanted to have more clinical context with respect to how to develop new therapies and to have the opportunity to be directly involved in the care of those I hope to help. I actually had an interest in IR pretty early into my medical school career. I think the ongoing innovation and technology in the field peaked my interest. By 4th year, my experiences from my clinical rotations cemented my interests. I then applied to residency and am here now. I just completed my surgical internship year at OHSU.
Tell me more about your interests in IR.
IR is a burgeoning field and is one of the newest fields with a constant influx of new technology and ideas coming out. I think IRs enjoy the greatest breadth of terms of procedures as they are not limited to a single organ system or methodology of intervention. I think that the opportunity to simultaneously utilize advanced imaging technologies with interventions is a pretty fascinating idea, and very unique in medicine today.
What are your current research interests?
They are fairly broad. I have an engineering background but also have basic science training. My interests span from device design to basic science interests. Right now, I am working on a project looking at thermal ablation in a mouse model of HCC. We are looking at how hot and cold temperatures affect tumor cell dynamics. Specifically, how these exposures affect the cancer stem cells and enrichment of these populations. Eventually we would like to combine these studies with immunoadjuvants and/or cancer stem cell inhibitors to hopefully improve the outcomes of percutaneous thermal interventions.
More broadly, what is the ultimate goal for once you are finished with your training program?
I’m currently most interested in interventional oncology. I think I would like to participate in academic medicine or work in the private sector focusing on developing new and novel approaches surrounding interventional oncology.
IR is a procedure heavy specialty. How do you plan on integrating both procedures and research in your career?
I don’t know, that would be a good question for our program director. But, generally, if you are working as an academician you will need to just set aside time to hopefully be productive in more than just the clinical realm.
How is your program structured? Specifically, how do you promote continuity of research throughout training?
This is the only program, as far as I know, in the country with a T32 grant associated with an IR program. During intern year we are given a lot of resources to look around at labs we may want to join and people we want to work with. Then during our first month in the residency program, we are able to shop around and attend lab meetings of people we may want to work with. The two directors of the program help to navigate where you may want to go. Your first year in residency is funded and totally dedicated towards a research project. You then also have 6 weeks per year for the remainder of residency that are fully funded and dedicated towards research. This gives you the opportunity every other month to continue to work on your project. One potential advantage of this setup is that during the first year you might be able to apply for grants and then have additional funding so that you can pay the lab or whoever you work with to continue the project. You will also ideally have others you can work with so you do not have to be in the lab yourself all the time to continue making progress towards your goals.
What is the focus on research within the IR faculty at UCSD?
That is an area that is continuing to grow. There is a lot of clinical research going on as well as collaboration within the private sector. I’d say that Dr. Newton is one of the first IR faculty members to pursue basic science research related to IR. San Diego is a major biotechnology hub and there is certainly an opportunity to collaborate with an institute outside of UCSD such as the Salk Institute. Because you already have funding with the T32 grant, many labs are open to working with you because as they don’t have to pull money out of their grant in support of your research efforts.
With San Diego being a pretty large biotechnology hub, is there a lot of collaboration that goes on with industry as well?
There is a collaboration with BTG for my project with Dr. Newton. There are also several faculty members here collaborating with industry in various IR-related fields such as oncology.
If an aspiring medical student is looking to pursue science as an IR, why should they consider your program?
As far as I know, it is one of the only programs that has dedicated funding to pursue IR research. In addition, UCSD has a long history of training DRs to become scientists. There are actually several people that have graduated from this program as DRs who went on to IR fellowship and have gone on to pursue meaningful research in the field.
With IR becoming its own specialty, do you think that is going to drive it to be more of a research emphasis among academic departments?
I don’t know if it will or not, but continuing to train IRs to be clinician scientists is critical for the health of the specialty. I also think that the opportunity for impactful fundamental research is high in IR. We are at a tipping point now where we are going to need to have people who are really dedicated to innovation in the field in order to grow the procedures and clinical impacts that we are able to make.
Any advice you have to pass along to medical students interested in a research focused IR career?
The key thing is to make sure that where you train has the resources available to allow you to achieve your goals. It is important to see that there are faculty with the career you have in mind that can serve as a mentor and advocate for you. You also need to see how much support other residents receive in their ability to do research in their residency program. Also, be sure to make sure you actually want to do research in IR by finding your own opportunity in medical school to work on a project.
By Christopher Johnson, PhD
MS3- Emory University