The Best of Both Worlds

On February 14, 1978, a patient with underlying Hodgkin’s disease received a lumbar puncture to collect cerebrospinal fluid for further testing. The doctor working that night examined the fluid and identified the H99 strain of Cryptococcus neoformans for the very first time, which is still being used in various lab work (including my own) today. This physician who isolated this novel strain is none other than my PI, Dr. Perfect, and given his vivid recount of the details from that night, it appears as though for him the historic event feels like it occurred only yesterday, despite it being the start of a nearly 50 year career working with Crypto.

Dr. Perfect described a path into the science community that felt very relatable to my own experiences thus far; a career decision solidified in middle school, summer undergraduate research, inspirations from famous philanthropic scientists, etc. However Dr. Perfect’s overall philosophies were what struck me as both the most valuable and the most intriguing takeaways from the interview. His original idealism and goals of wanting to help or “save the world” grew into skepticism as he emerged into the clinical setting, where politics can make such a feat tricky for even the most optimistic of scientists. However, this has never hindered his commitment to good science. The toughest part about clinical research currently, he suggests, is the cost and ability to afford the necessary infrastructure for a successful system. Aside from the logistics of it all, Dr. Perfect calls attention to the ever growing issue of researcher and patient interface — the trust, or lack thereof — that gets snuffed out quickly in today’s society saturated with misinformation. The ethical concerns on the researchers’ end, combined with mistrust on the patients’ end work symbiotically to hinder the progress of science, but Dr. Perfect’s long and illustrious career indicates that important progress is not halted completely.

The field of infectious diseases is fascinating mainly because it “cuts across all the clinical areas,” connecting inherently to a wide variety of specialties. Dr. Perfect believes that this field will require more attention in the coming years, and the spotlight is well-deserved, as is evident based on the current onslaught of research brought on by the pandemic (Dr. Perfect notes that he has now been alive through two pandemics, HIV being the first). His particular work connects easily from the clinical side to the research lab, and with each side being so intensive, his career is akin to having 2 simultaneous full time jobs. While the lab research is more mechanistic, studying the “in the woods stuff,” its applications are just as exciting in the clinical perspective, offering a “30,000 foot view;” both sides equally “tricky but extraordinarily important.”

The vast depth of his experience cannot be overstated, which is why his parting advice rings so poignantly in the young ears of a prospective graduate student in the coming years. For potential medical school applicants, when faced with that one brutal yet telling question, “why medical school,” Dr. Perfect suggests that the only correct answer should be a desire to help people, and a want to improve their health. For students all across Duke’s campus, he warns not to squander the plethora of opportunities readily available, and to “optimize your time at a research university.” Lastly, to all young and aspiring scientists, he offers his own sentiments as proof that a career in science is a life worth pursuing. Whether you are discovering new strains of fungal pathogens in the Duke Hospital, or pipetting clear liquids into clear tubes for PCR reactions that may (or may not) work, “at times, it’s just excitement!”

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