Where Are They Now: Karla Leavens

Traditionally, the format of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) consists of two years of medical school, approximately four years of graduate school, and another two years of medical school. However, Karla Leavens, M.D., Ph.D. is proof that the traditional path is not the only route to achieve a dual degree.

Although Karla always liked research, she did not consider pursuing a career in medicine until her senior year of college when she became interested in endocrinology. However, she did not apply to medical school at the time because she had already committed to attend graduate school the upcoming fall. Karla joined the CPM program in CAMB where she rotated in the labs of Drs. Hah, Ahema, and Birnbaum, all of whom are supportive of clinician scientists. She ultimately joined the Birnbaum lab, and after two years in the CAMB program, switched to the MSTP program. Karla then completed the first two years of medical school before returning to the Birnbaum lab to resume her thesis work. Upon the defense of her thesis in 2010, she returned to medical school and earned her M.D. in 2012.

Karla then completed a pediatric residency in Pittsburgh. Karla was drawn to pediatric, rather than adult, endocrinology because the symptoms in children are genetically and/or physiologically influenced, rather than the result of breakdown as is usually the case in adults. Plus, as Karla said, “Kids are fun!” While she conducted a bit of research during her three-year residency, Karla ultimately chose to focus on her clinical training during her residency. She felt confident in her research training at this point and wanted to be sure that she had the medical training necessary to be a good physician.

After residency, Karla returned to Philadelphia for a pediatric endocrinology fellowship at CHOP. She chose CHOP not only because of its merits, but also because her partner, Dr. Robert Lee (CAMB/CPM alumnus – Fosket lab), landed a faculty position at CHOP as well! Though the first year of the fellowship was solely clinical, Karla is finally back at the bench. She joined Dr. Paul Gadue’s lab in July 2016 where she is using stem cells as a model of pancreatic beta cell physiology. Fellowships often only last for two years, but Karla is hoping for a third year of funding so that she can make as much progress as possible before establishing an independent lab.

Throughout our conversation, it was clear that clinician scientists like Karla face several key decisions during training. For example, residency allowed Karla to treat patients and now her fellowship permits Karla to do research and specialize in endocrinology. Now, Karla faces yet another important decision – how to balance her time between the clinic and the lab. Karla isn’t exactly sure how she’ll split her time, but she does know that she wants to play both roles.

It was at this point in our conversation that Karla offered advice to doctoral students, particularly current MSTP students: “You can plan, but you have to make decisions when you reach the forks in the road. Have some idea of what you may want to do, but be open about what you can do with your degree and accept that your interests will likely change over time.” Karla has been on the same trajectory for the past five years, but now it is time for her to decide the next step. Based on her experience thus far, Karla recommends worrying less about the balance between the clinic and the lab at earlier stages in training because there will be plenty of time to decide. Instead, focus on what excites you and makes you happy, especially since you can’t make any of the big decisions until it’s time. MSTP student or not, I think that’s advice that we can all consider.

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