Physician-scientist: I found my sense of belonging at MD Anderson
Being part of a community doesn’t have to mean conforming to others. I’ve found my community at MD Anderson. We celebrate our differences, which bond us – and strengthen our science.
My early experiences as an outsider
My family emigrated from South Korea to Canada when I was 6 years old. Up until then, I had spent my life playing with frogs in rice paddies. My new home was a small Mennonite town. There weren’t many others that looked like us, and we didn't speak English. It was a difficult transition.
My Korean name is Yon Son Kim, but nobody could pronounce it. I was reading a lot of Archie comics at that age, and I loved Betty. So, I asked my mom to be called that.
My mom understood the challenges of fitting in. Everything about us was different: our appearance, our language and even our food. So, when I asked her to change my name, she agreed. I’ve been called Betty ever since then.
Research intensifies my impact
I’m a physician-scientist. I started my training in Canada and came to MD Anderson for the Neurosurgical Oncology Fellowship. I stayed at MD Anderson to complete a second fellowship dedicated to skull base tumor surgery. Although I started my career as a surgeon, I was led to research for two reasons.
As physicians, we want to help others. Surgeons help by cutting out as much of the tumor as possible. With cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer, there are often margins that allow us to keep cutting until we get it all. But not with a brain tumor. If we take too much tissue, the patient can end up with speech arrest or paralysis.
I realized doing research would help me make a bigger impact. Every day, I work to save lives, but research offers hope that my work can benefit more people in the future. That’s the dream of a translational scientist: to hear that people are living longer because of what you did in the lab. That’s what inspires me to work hard every day.
Frustration leads to innovation
Another reason I pursued research was my frustration as a physician. I felt like we could better care for patients if better technology existed.
For example, patients can leak brain fluid after pituitary surgeries through the nose. Sometimes, it’s not easy to distinguish mucus from brain fluid, so it has to be tested.
When I was in training, the test samples were sent out twice a week. If we missed that day, the patient had to stay in the hospital for extra days. I imagined a tool that could be used at the bedside to instantaneously determine if the fluid was mucus or brain fluid. Using nanomaterials, the device would read a litmus paper test strip. I went into my Ph.D. thinking that was what I would do.
The promise of nanotechnology
My start in nanotechnology was 15 years ago when the field was in its infancy for medical use. But I felt that it had so much promise.
Back then, we had a limited understanding of how the body reacts to synthetic nanomaterials. We’ve learned that when different-sized nanoparticles are exposed to cells, they can cause unique changes to cells. We can trigger cancer cells into programmed cell death or senescence, so they don't replicate.
Now, nanotechnology is used much more widely in medicine, from the COVID-19 vaccines to many cancer drugs. And there’s so much more to explore.
My lab is trying to increase the activity of myeloid cells to better treat cancer. Through nanomaterials, we’re altering macrophages and myeloid cells to engage the cancer cells early. The hope is the myeloid cells will then present tumor antigen fragments and trigger a T cell response.
Finding my place at MD Anderson
As a trainee at MD Anderson, I felt a sense of belonging. I met amazing people dedicated to doing a great job of helping others, and they were eager to help me grow. I just really love that. It’s very different from other health care institutions.
Also, MD Anderson takes the role of physician-scientist very seriously. At other institutions, “physician-scientist” is used to label an individual who has an M.D. and is doing some sort of research. Although many clinicians do research, being a physician-scientist is a unique career path. MD Anderson understands this and even has a physician-scientist program. They invest money and time in individuals like me, even though they may not see any return in the first five years. They see the long-term benefit for MD Anderson and future patients.
A network of mentors
I’m proud of my accomplishments – personally and professionally. My husband, Wen Jiang, M.D., Ph.D., also works at MD Anderson. Together, we have twin daughters.
My life and my career are still evolving, and I’m fortunate to have mentors at MD Anderson who push me forward. Franco DeMonte, M.D., is a lifelong mentor. I go to him for clinical advice and even personal guidance. And the great scientists that I’ve admired are now colleagues. I can ask them questions and get their advice.
MD Anderson also empowers women. Early in my career, I didn’t realize the importance of female mentors, but I’ve learned that we have a lot to offer that’s different from our male counterparts. Here, I get to witness female powerhouses such as Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., and Karen Lu, M.D., and model their leadership. By observing them, I’ve learned how to get my opinions across in a more eloquent way.
These amazing mentors also act as my strongest sponsors and have given me opportunities to lead, such as in my role with Break Through Cancer. They see my skills and push me to grow in ways that I can’t imagine for myself.
A connection with the next generation of physician-scientists
Even though I don’t always see myself as a leader, I’m dedicated to my lab team. I want them to push the boundaries of biomedical research and to feel like they also belong in this field.
It's not just the skills either. We can always teach those. It’s really about the person and where their heart is at. I want MD Anderson to feel like their community in the way that it’s felt like mine.