Brittney-Shea Herbert, PhD, is the new assistant dean for physician-scientist development at IU School of Medicine, where she will oversee programs focused on the training of future physician-scientists at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels.
Dr. Herbert is an associate professor of medical and molecular genetics and graduate advisor for the Medical and Molecular Genetics Program at IU School of Medicine. She earned a PhD in biological sciences from the University of Texas at Austin and completed postdoctoral training at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Since joining the IU School of Medicine faculty in 2003, Dr. Herbert has mentored more than 30 trainees at all stages of their biomedical careers.
In her role as an assistant dean, Dr. Herbert, who begins her new duties Sept. 1, will lead the development of programs geared toward the enrichment of future physician-scientists, including the Indiana Medical Student Program for Research and Scholarship (IMPRS); the Undergraduate Research for Prospective Physician-Scientists and Physician Engineers, a summer undergraduate program for future MD/PhD students; and activities for the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) for MD/PhD students. Read on to learn more about Dr. Herbert and her vision for IU School of Medicine physician-scientist development.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and why you decided to pursue a career in biomedical research. What about it is most rewarding to you?
Dr. Herbert: I have always had an interest in science, going back to my childhood. I would spend my time outdoors exploring nature and answering my own questions, figuring out how things work, by doing my own research. After being nudged by a faculty member at UT-Austin to try undergraduate research, I loved being in the laboratory (I would rather skip classes and go to the lab to do experiments). I stayed on at UT to pursue my PhD degree, which led me down the path to eventually achieving my own independent laboratory in biomedical research in academia. Along the way, I had really good mentors who not only believed in me, but who were also excellent scientist role models, one being an MD/PhD. It is the mentorship and impact on others that I find most rewarding in biomedical research (and keeps me moving forward during tough times), such as when a student “gets it” or becomes inspired, or when a patient thanks me for making a difference in their lives. I value the bench-to-bedside and bedside-to-bench approach to translational research.
Q: What research projects are you currently working on?
A: My research interest is to understand the biology of aging and cancer. The molecular clock in the cell is regulated by telomeres (the tips of the chromosomes like the aglets of shoelaces). If telomeres are lost or damaged, then that can lead to premature aging events or age-related diseases such as cancer. Understanding how this can happen will aid in developing new treatments for these disorders. My current research includes understanding the association between telomere function and risk for cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, as well as how obesity can affect the risk for breast tissue to become cancerous.
Q: Most students tend to choose solely MD programs, instead of MD/PhD programs. Why is it important to develop well-trained physician-scientists?
A: MDs are uniquely situated to probe biomedical research questions by their observations in the clinic as part of their profession. The benefit of the combined degree program is to efficiently integrate—early on—the medical training with the training needed to master the scientific skills necessary to succeed in research, such as developing a hypothesis, designing experiments, troubleshooting and especially writing excellent proposals or publications. While the combined degree training occurs early on in the medical career, medical students or MDs can still attain these critical research skills at other stages of their careers, such as through a summer research program or a research fellowship offered by a residency program.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about your new role as assistant dean for physician-scientist development?
A: I look forward to ensuring that all medical students across all campuses/regional centers have the opportunity to perform some form of research, which should spark more interest in incorporating more research into their careers as physicians. More research leads to more clinical health outcomes to impact our communities. I am also excited to work with many of the excellent centers on our campus, such as the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI) and Regenstrief Institute, to improve on research opportunities for physicians and MD/PhD students. Furthermore, I look forward to ensuring that IU School of Medicine continues to attract the top candidates for future physician-scientists/engineers through our undergraduate summer research program pipeline, and that current MD/PhD students continue to participate and succeed in academic research beyond obtaining their degrees.
Q: How has your experience mentoring students and postgraduates sparked your ideas for physician-scientist enrichment?
A: Mentoring students and postgraduates at a premier academic medical institution has helped me appreciate: 1) that there are many clinical and basic research questions that need to be investigated to improve human health, and 2) the wide array of the types of research beyond laboratory/bench research such as clinical, patient/health outcomes and community/health education. Furthermore, I want to instill in physicians-scientists in training what I have provided to my past mentees and advisees in terms of becoming an accomplished researcher. An important part of graduate and postgraduate training is the continued development of scientific and career skills: thinking and reasoning, experimental design, asking the right questions, analyzing data, perseverance, communication and teamwork.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring physician-scientists?
A: A true gift of being a physician-scientist is being able to not only solve problems on the molecular mechanisms of a disease, but also being able to apply that knowledge to the treatment of their patients. I learned a lot about what important questions remain to be investigated from attending Grand Rounds and clinical seminars. These important questions can begin to be formulated by observing what goes on in the clinic. Ask the questions that are important to you and your passion will supersede any challenges that you may encounter. There are resources and mentors available to help physicians with research training at any stage of their careers, but being a self-starter and taking the initiative is key.
Q: Outside of work, what are some of your favorite things to do for fun in Indiana?
A: Since arriving here in 2003, I make an effort to explore a variety of famous sites or places off the beaten path in Indiana. Lately, I have been enjoying helping my father check off items on his travel bucket list. I also make time to stay active and healthy; I try to accomplish a new goal each year such as completing a triathlon, marathon or other physical challenges. While working out, I enjoy listening to science news podcasts and audiobooks. But for most of the time, being of Danish heritage, I value the hygge experience.