Science and service aren’t mutually exclusive concepts to Katie White — they’re mutually reinforcing.
The marriage of the two is what makes for the ideal practice of medicine, which she conducts as a clinical Infectious Diseases fellow at Vanderbilt. The daughter of two NASA engineers, science has colored White’s life since youth, but the life sciences in particular have defined her academic and medical career. White completed an MD, PhD at The University of Alabama at Birmingham before arriving at Vanderbilt, and her research in HIV-1 pathogenesis has led her to Seattle, Amsterdam, Montreal, and Galveston, where she presented her work, published in the Journal of Virology, Virology and the Journal of Experimental Medicine.
“Early in my seven years of training at UAB, I realized that I am most attracted to questions involving the interactions of pathogens and their human hosts,” says White. “My thesis research was conducted in Dr. George Shaw’s laboratory, where I constructed molecular chimeras of HIV-1 and HIV-2 genomes and used the chimeric viruses that resulted to probe the neutralizing antibody repertoire of HIV-1 infected individuals.”
This work had significant implications for HIV-1 vaccine research and explains why UAB selected White to represent the university at the National Student Research Forum in Galveston. These opportunities, as well as an interaction early in her career with a young HIV patient, reinforced her interest in both the lab-driven and clinical side of medicine — an interest that has continued during her tenure at Vanderbilt.
“I encountered my first patient with HIV-1 early in my medical school clerkships. This young man was a quiet, neglected and emaciated pediatric patient who graciously answered my questions regarding the physical, psychological and social impacts of his diagnosis. This encounter was extremely enlightening for me as it provided the opportunity to understand HIV-1 from an entirely new perspective — that of the patient coping with disease.”
White has since interacted with hundreds of patients and continues to gravitate toward clinical puzzles involving infection and host responses to infection. To this end, she has found numerous learning opportunities at Vanderbilt that are supported by a robust infrastructure and mentorship by a dedicated teaching faculty. “As a new ID fellow, I am having a great time learning about the manifestations and treatment of infectious diseases. I have also been fortunate to extend my interest in HIV medicine to the clinic as a fellow at the Vanderbilt Comprehensive Care Clinic. The CCC is an exemplary institution that provides inclusive medical care for patients living with HIV. The institutional support here for infectious diseases medicine — both inpatient and outpatient — is exceptional.”
As an aspiring clinician and basic science investigator, White was also selected to become a member of the Harrison Society, a small community of housestaff and faculty at Vanderbilt who share an interest in both clinical medicine and basic science research. White says, “I was impressed by the camaraderie and collective accomplishments of this group during my interview and, as a member, have found the peer support and faculty mentorship very beneficial in mapping my future as a physician scientist.”
White was initially attracted to Vanderbilt for the distinction of becoming a VU-trained doctor and investigator, but her residency interview enhanced the appeal of the experience considerably. Along with the emphasis on top medical training, White found in Vanderbilt’s institutional culture many attributes that facilitate a collaborative work environment. “The leadership at Vanderbilt requires a sincere commitment to excellence, hard work and service from all faculty, staff and trainees,” says White. “It is clear to me that these values have been prioritized and are ingrained in the training experience. Vanderbilt is an outstanding place to develop the skills needed to become a competent and compassionate physician. The talent and dedication of the program leadership, teaching faculty, housestaff, nursing and ancillary staff at Vanderbilt is exceptional. It is an honor to be counted among this group.”
In the upcoming year, White will have an opportunity to expand her role as an educator as one of four Hugh Jackson Morgan Internal Medicine chief residents at Vanderbilt. “I am extremely excited about this opportunity and look forward to working with faculty and housestaff to help shape the training experience of new physicians and share my enthusiasm for our program,” says White.
Outside her life at VUMC, White enjoys working on home improvement projects with her husband Billy, a Nashville-based web developer, as well as oil painting, needlework, gardening and backpacking. The two also enjoy testing new experiments in the kitchen on a regular basis. This seems fitting for someone equally interested in the scientific and human sides of medicine.
by Ryan S. Burleson