Our next Student Sketch features MS4, Steve Witte, who is unique in that he was a dual scholar in the UAB MSTP and the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars (OxCam) program. Steve grew up in Grand Rapids, MI and attended college at Central Michigan University (CMU) in Mount Pleasant. Read on to learn about his adventures in Michigan, Cambridge (England), Washington D.C., and Birmingham, as well as his future plans for a residency in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
Paige: What was your research experience prior to applying to MSTP programs?
Steve: At CMU, I started out my freshman year studying the evolution of euglenoids, a single-celled organism, using DNA sequencing, bioinformatics, and phylogenetic analyses. For the next three years of college, I worked on stem cell transplantation therapies for Huntington’s disease. I still have a scar on my finger from getting bitten by a rat! I also did an internship at the NIH in Washington, D.C. one summer through the NIH Intramural Summer Internship Program and really liked my experience at the NIH. It was very inspiring to work with famous scientists at a place where so many important discoveries in medicine were made. There are lots of scientists and staff scientists who taught me wet lab and big data analysis skills, and it was also a very good place for networking. It was this experience that first inspired me to go into rheumatology.
Paige: That seems like a very diverse and extensive research background! Why did you decide to pursue MSTP programs?
Steve: The main reason I applied to MSTP programs was be well-trained to do translational research. I want a career that will allow me to both see patients as well as help solve important medical problems through research.
Paige: And why did you choose the UAB MSTP?
Steve: UAB has a very good community of immunologists and rheumatologists. And I thought the MST program was very well run. The leadership was top-notch and provided all the support I would need to be successful. I liked the culture and student community and thought it was a better fit than some of the other programs I interviewed at.
Paige: How was Birmingham compared to Michigan?
Steve: Almost as different as England compared to the US. The culture and architecture and weather are all pretty different. It’s interesting [in a good way].
Paige: Your PhD experience was unique in that you completed your training in not one, but two, off-site locations (Cambridge and the NIH). How did end up in the OxCam program and what was different about your PhD requirements?
Steve: I applied to the OxCam program the same year that I applied to medical school and MSTP programs. I was accepted into UAB and the OxCam program, and I talked to Robin [Dr. Robin Lorenz, director of the UAB MSTP] and the director of OxCam and we worked out the details. My PhD is from the University of Cambridge, and the British system is a little different from how things are done in the USA. Splitting my time between Cambridge and the NIH also allowed me to broaden my skills.
Paige: Can you speak more on your experience in the OxCam program?
Steve: I was able to get plugged in to the European research community, and I also worked at the NIH as a graduate student, which is a rather unique experience, since most researchers at the NIH are post-doctoral. I picked my two labs to allow me to learn complementary skills and complete a more complex research project. In Cambridge, during the first half of my training, I worked for Dr. Allan Bradley. He was the first isolated pluripotent stem cells from mouse blastocysts in Martin Evans’s lab the early 80s [who later won the Nobel Prize] and really advanced the field of genetic engineering in Eukaryotic cells. I also picked up a third co-mentor at the European Bioinformatics Institute – Dr. Anton Enright – a bioinformatician from whom I learned genomics and how to do high-performance computing. Back at the NIH, I worked in Dr. John O’Shea’s lab, who is a Rheumatologist that pioneered the use of JAK inhibitors. In his lab I learned experimental immunology techniques, studying cytokine immunoregulation and lymphocyte biology in the context of autoimmunity.
Paige: What was it like having multiple PhD mentors?
Steve: My mentors worked in different fields, so they talked to each other pretty infrequently, and it was usually my responsibility to make sure we were all on the same page. My time was split 50/50 between my two main labs at Cambridge and NIH, but I also spent 6 months at my third co-mentor’s lab at the EBI.
Paige: What was it like living in England?
Steve: Cambridge, about 45 minutes from London, is a small university city with several surrounding English villages. I went to the second oldest college at the University of Cambridge, Clare College, which was endowed about 700 years ago by Lady Elizabeth de Clare a.k.a. “The Black Widow,” who became the wealthiest individual in Spain when she was alive and had a reputation for marrying very wealthy men who would mysteriously die a few months later (so she accumulated wealth overtime). Jim Watson also studied there when he and Francis Crick discovered the molecular structure of DNA. It was like living in a castle with everything made of stone. It was a cool experience at first, but things like heat and Wi-Fi didn’t work so well. I opted to move out after my first term and lived in a flat with a few friends in the center of Cambridge. Cambridge is a very good place for someone pursuing a scholarly career to spend a couple of years. Moving to Cambridge was tricky at first because I had to get a student visa, and the bureaucracy was a hurdle. However, the university had a lot of assistance and guidance for international students and there were a lot of social events so it was easy to meet people and make friends. Getting around was a bit different too, since most people use bikes to get around town or the train to travel further distances.
Paige: Did you get to travel while you were in Europe, and do you have any plans to return?
Steve: The flights over there were very inexpensive because the airlines compete with the bullet trains. I managed to visit over 20 European countries, in addition to exploring London. In Scotland, we visited distilleries and saw the Lochs (but not the Loch Ness monster). My favorite country I visited was Norway. They had the best scenery I’ve ever seen in my life, and I got to drive by the #1 World Heritage Site. And, of course, the fjords. I traveled with my some of my friends to their home countries, allowing me the opportunity to see countries from a local perspective and avoid the touristy areas.
I may return for a future May Ball, which is a formal British event and tradition that started at Oxford and Cambridge. At the end of the academic year, they throw a swanky ball that starts in the evening and extends overnight with live music and performances, food, dancing, and fireworks.
Paige: How was the move back to the States to complete your PhD at the NIH in Washington, D.C.?
Steve: I was very happy to return to D.C. I had a lot of fun there as an undergraduate. The neighborhood I lived in, Kalorama Heights, is actually the same neighborhood that the Obamas moved to after they left office. I got a great deal on an apartment there.
Paige: What is an elevator pitch of your thesis project?
Steve: I investigated the factors governing CD4+ T helper fate decision and macrophage cell activation, to better understand inflammatory responses and find novel approaches for treating autoimmune disorders.
Paige: How was the transition back to Birmingham and medical school?
Steve: The transition to Birmingham was great. A lot of my friends were still living in Birmingham, because they were Residents or were still students. The transition to clinic was definitely a challenge because I had forgotten a lot of medical knowledge. It was a lot of work during the first month to catch up, but other than that it’s really been an amazing experience.
Paige: And now you’ve almost made it! How has the interview trail for residency been treating you?
Steve: The interview trail was a lot of fun. I met a lot of people who want to do similar things as me, and learned a lot about different institutes and the amazing work being done around the country.
Paige: What are your plans for residency?
Steve: Internal Medicine and then fellowship training in Rheumatology. I want to do a traditional physician-scientist career with 80% of my time doing research and 20% doing clinical work. I would like to study the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases and develop drugs that target that pathogenesis. Specifically, I want to work on developing precision medicine for rheumatologic diseases.
Paige: Very cool, and focused! Looking back on your time in the program, what was your favorite year or phase of the MSTP?
Steve: That’s a tough question. I really liked learning the basic medical sciences and about how systems in the body work, but I also enjoyed doing research and returning to work in clinic. I don’t think I can pick a favorite.
Paige: Do you have any advice for other trainees in the program or hoping to start MD-PhD training?
Steve: The earlier you can determine what you want to work on and what area of medicine you go into, the easier things will be. Don’t try to keep all of the options available.
Paige: And finally, what do you do for fun?
Steve: I like to play piano, hike, and paint. For painting, I mostly use oil paints and like doing landscapes and abstract pieces.