Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with my PI, Dr. Pendergast, about her path in science and the work that she currently does. She developed an interest in research, and particularly in Chemistry and Molecular Biology, during her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She received her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California at Los Angeles. Dr. Pendergast remained at UCLA for her postgraduate work in Molecular Cancer Biology. It was under the mentorship of Dr. Owen Witte that she developed an interest in normal and oncogenic tyrosine kinases, which eventually led to her focus on the Abelson family of tyrosine kinases. Dr. Witte discovered the tyrosine kinase ability of the ABL protein, as well as the role of the BCR-ABL fusion protein in leukemias. The Pendergast Lab researches the role of ABL in a wider range of cell signaling pathways. Dr. Witte was himself mentored by the great biologist Dr. David Baltimore, who received the 1975 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on tumor viruses.
The Pendergast Lab consists largely of graduate students. I asked Dr. Pendergast what she values most in students looking to join her lab. She emphasized the importance of understanding what scientific questions to ask. What distinguishes the best scientists, she said, is their ability to formulate important and appropriately ambitious questions, and not to lose sight of how each experiment is connected to these bigger picture questions. Although Dr. Pendergast enjoys advising her students and guiding their work to an extent, she understands the importance of giving them the freedom to be creative and design projects without restrictive instructions. Ultimately, she wants her students to gain the ability to formulate and answer scientific questions independently.
I asked Dr. Pendergast for her advice on pursuing a career in medicine versus one in medical research. She suggested that pursuing an MD-PhD gives you a greater range of opportunities than solely an MD (or solely a PhD, for that matter). For one, being qualified in both fields gives you far greater career security, particularly in difficult research funding climates. Additionally, physician-scientists have an edge in that they understand the clinical aspects of medicine to a far greater extent than pure researchers, and the scientific aspects of medicine to a far greater extent than pure doctors. The clinical side gives them an understanding of what scientific questions are most important (in that they can have the greatest impact impact on healthcare), while the scientific side enables them to actually address these questions.
Dr. Pendergast also suggested that researchers have a more exciting job than physicians. While doctors perform the same techniques again and again, researchers ask new questions and explore the scientific unknowns. A similar point was made to me by one of the lab’s MD-PhD students. Having experienced both the hospital and lab environments, he argued that researchers, to a greater extent than doctors, make use of the prefrontal cortex which gives humans our enhanced ability for complex thought.