Insights from a clinician-investigator

Haley Bridger, May 23rd, 2012
  • David Altshuler
    Photo by Maria Nemchuk,
    Broad Communications

This week, an interview with David Altshuler – clinical endocrinologist, human geneticist, and core faculty member of the Broad Institute – appears in Science Translational Medicine. David spoke with Sarah Henrickson, an early-career clinician-investigator who completed an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Harvard Medical School, and is currently a pediatrics resident in the Boston Combined Residency Program at Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center. David and Sarah collaborated on this commentary, which is particularly focused on young researchers beginning a career combining science and medicine, but also contains a relevant message for anyone working in the fields of biomedicine and translational research.

Sarah starts by asking David why he considered it valuable to combine both clinical and research training. David describes his experiences in medicine, which brought him into direct contact with people who are suffering, helping him develop an acute awareness of the gaps in our knowledge of human disease and the need for better ways to treat patients. Sarah and David discuss how clinical experiences can shape laboratory investigations, and how graduate training provides expertise with a powerful set of tools and high standards of rigor, as required to really make progress.

Sarah also asks whether it is necessary to pick a field and approach and stay with them throughout one’s career, or to venture into new areas. David shares his own career path, in which he joined Eric Lander’s lab at age 33 having never before performed research in human genetics and genomics. This was risky, in that he moved into a new area, but presented remarkable opportunities. Taking risks and moving in new directions, David explains, was key to pursuing what interested him the most, and what turned out to be his life’s work.

“I think that risk aversion is one of the greatest risks to young clinician investigators,” he tells Sarah. Later in the interview, he adds, “If you’re not willing to do something that is hard, you are almost guaranteed that what you do won’t matter.”

This philosophy continues to inform David’s research and his lab’s trajectory.

The Science Translational Medicine piece is available here (please note that you may need a subscription to access the article). To learn more about the Altshuler lab, please visit the lab page here. You can also read more about David’s latest collaborative work on HDL cholesterol in a press release here.