This Sketch features Kelsey Patterson, a rising GS4 studying neurodevelopment. Kelsey grew up in central Ohio near Columbus and started her college education at UC Berkeley in California. After her freshman year, she did summer research at UAB and found her niche with then Neurobiology Department Chair, David Sweatt. She soon after decided to transfer to UAB to work with Dr. Sweatt and earned a degree in Neurobiology. During her time in Birmingham, she met program director Dr. Robin Lorenz and a few of the older MSTP students and the rest is history. Read on for details on Kelsey’s story and what’s coming up next in her journey.
Paige: When did you decide to pursue the MD/PhD track?
Kelsey: I always thought I wanted to do research, but didn’t really know medicine and science could be integrated. I became interested in the MD/PhD pathway after meeting Robin and a few of the older MSTP students here, then did shadowing and liked it. I thought research made medicine interesting, so I met with Robin and decided to apply here and to other MD/PhD programs.
Paige: What made you decide on UAB?
Kelsey: Really because of Robin—she is so awesome. Anyone who knows her knows she’s the best. The MSTP here is like a family of students; it’s a good atmosphere. This was the place I thought I’d be the happiest, and I’m glad I chose it.
Paige: That seems to be a common answer among our students! After finishing the first years of medical school, how did you decide on a thesis lab?
Kelsey: My PI [Michelle Olsen, PhD] helped run a course I took in undergrad, so I met her then. I had experience in undergrad working in a bigger lab environment, so I wanted to experience what it was like to work in a smaller lab with a newer PI—one who was really involved with the students. I chose Michelle for my first rotation and thought she was a really nice and really interesting person. After finishing my second rotation, I decided on Michelle’s lab because of the size of the lab, her direct involvement with students, her personality—and the research was interesting. The quality of the mentor relationship is the most important.
Paige: 100%. You got thrown a curveball when she moved institutions last year, though, and decided to stay in Michelle’s lab but complete your PhD work at UAB. How has that experience been for you?
Kelsey: It’s definitely been challenging. We talk every single week and stay in direct contact—she goes out of her way to stay involved in my project. There are challenges even when you are in the same place as your PI, though. Practically speaking, I don’t know how much of a difference it makes to not have her here, but it’s harder mentally dealing with challenges of any research experience as they come along. You have that extra layer of feeling like you have to figure this out by yourself, that it’s your responsibility. I was starting to work on a new project when she was leaving, so that also added to the challenge. I’m working through it, though, and I’m still on track to finish in 4 years. Your PI moving definitely isn’t something you think will be an issue when you start out. Part of the reason I chose her in the first place was that she loved UAB and wanted to stay here, but that can change for anyone.
Paige: Has the MSTP been supportive of your decision to stay at UAB to finish your PhD?
Kelsey: Randy and Robin and everyone have been super, super supportive. Robin’s first question was what direction I wanted to go with this. She said I had to make the decision about what I wanted. I own a house here and wanted to stay and continue my life here. When she left, I was just finishing my second year in the lab, and had submitted my F30 and was in the midst of analyzing a lot of data. I already had one first author publication, so I was considering the possibility of finishing in the next 12 months, but it looks now like I’ll be here two years without her. Everyone has been working with me and has been on my team for whatever goals I want to accomplish. I’ve learned it’s important having open lines of communication with the office and your PI so everyone stays on the same page—there’s more responsibility on you when your PI isn’t here. One other lab member stayed here as well, so that’s been really helpful too just having another person in the same space to talk through different things (science-related and non-science) with.
Paige: Very awesome. Switching gears a tad, can you give us an elevator pitch of your thesis project?
Kelsey: We have a novel rat model of Rett Syndrome, which is a developmental disorder that affects girls early in life. My first goal was to characterize the rat model to establish it as a useful model to study Rett Syndrome. I spent my first year doing that and got one publication. The project I’m working on now deals with the role of astrocytes in normal and abnormal development in the context of Rett. I’m doing electrophysiology in the brainstem of young animals and seeing how they respond to respiratory changes in carbon dioxide content in the brainstem, asking what role this is playing in normal development and if it’s changed in animals following abnormal development. The initial direction I was going to take this project was looking at glutamate uptake in the cortex, but I didn’t see a difference there. But the brainstem is important—obviously—and astrocytes are understudied in that brain region.
Paige: Astrocytes are pretty rad cells. Does this type of research coincide with your clinical interests, or are you interested in another field?
Kelsey: I’m pretty sure I want to do OB/Gyn [obstetrics and gynecology], but not completely sure yet and have definitely struggled with thinking through all of that from the beginning. I like to do things with my hands and I know I would like surgery, but it’s a career path everyone tells you not to do as a physician scientist. OB/Gyn is appealing because it has both medical and surgical aspects. I think regardless, you have to be super passionate about the research you’re doing as a physician, so passionate that you are interested in that content in your work-life and outside of your work-life. I’ve been consistently very passionate about women’s health issues, so OB/Gyn seems most obvious.
Paige: Have you struggled at all with having a clinical interest that doesn’t exactly align with your current PhD research?
Kelsey: Whether your PhD is directly applicable to your area of interest isn’t important. Your PhD allows you to be a researcher, which is the main outcome of the PhD training. One of the advantages I will have going into an area I haven’t studied is that I’m very confident in my ability to innovate, and even if I don’t have every single tool I need to address a problem, I will be able to address it on my own. More confidence—that’s one positive of your boss leaving. The skills you gain during the PhD are what is really important. You learn how to think about problems and ask questions that will give you useful information.
Paige: Word. While we’re on the topic of clinical interest, are you excited about the prospect of starting your rotations in the hospital soon?
Kelsey: People who are in third year right now will probably hate me for this, but honestly the number of hours I work now is way more than what I worked in medical school. I’m looking forward to having a schedule ahead of time where I know when I’m working and when I’ll have a day I don’t have to be working. The erratic nature of the PhD and not being able to mentally get away from thinking about it is hard. I also just love interacting with patients in the hospital. Every time we do an H/P [history and physical exam] for our clinical continuity course, I’m excited to get back to clinic.
Paige: Looking back over your progress in the program so far, what has been your favorite year/stage?
Kelsey: Things have gotten harder every single year from the beginning, but I would say now is my favorite time. I’m at my maximum growth in the curve and will just keep increasing from here. I feel the best about myself and I feel confident about where I’m going. Even though sometimes when I’m at home, I’m thinking ‘ohhh I can’t wait for this part to be over.’ Sometimes you feel like it’s going to kill you but everyone is ultimately super proud of their accomplishments. It’s kind of a screwed up reward pathway because you have so much failure, and then have one little piece of data that refuels you to go through the next few months of inevitable trouble with your experiments. I thought I had a pretty good handle on failure because I did research on a project for several years in undergrad and the data didn’t turn out in our favor—so there were a lot of failures. I think it did prepare me pretty well, but it’s different when it’s your project, your responsibility, your child. Your sweat and blood are put into it and it’s on you to make it work or figure out that it won’t.
Paige: Rolling on the theme of that my question, what are some lessons you’ve learned during the program, or advice for your younger colleagues?
Kelsey: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that nothing is as big a deal as you think it is. Just take the time to sit back and relax every once in a while. Like, your life is going good. No failure is going to make or break you. A huge component of that is making sure to take time to do things that are important to you. I would advise younger students to have a few things that are really important to them and take time for those things. If you have to sacrifice study time or do front- or back-end work on something in the lab, then do that. Do things with people that are important to you and exercise and do something fun every once in a while. Also try to invest in real estate if you’re able to.
Paige: So what are those things for you?
Kelsey: I like to go outside and go hiking. I’ve turned to running as a therapeutic stress relief, so I run around 5 miles a few times a week. My boyfriend and I also like to go to concerts in Birmingham…death metal concerts. (I don’t know if you’re allowed to be a professional young person and enjoy death metal concerts, but I do.) And I own a condo in an older building, so I always have a project there I’m working on. I love to do home repairs. I have this plumbing project I just finished where I replaced part of the piping, re-soldered it, and built a new vanity for my bathroom. I like to build tables, repaint things, other home improvement/beautification stuff. If you’re failing in lab, you just watch as many YouTube videos as you can about how to do something and it usually turns out pretty good. And it’s a good confidence boost learning how to do something.