The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA pushes upcoming physicians to be "physicians and," leaving it to the latter to fill in the rest. The "and" can be anything from a leader to a teacher to a policymaker. For many, the "and" is a researcher. Stanley Nelson, MD, practices medicine and actively participates in research at UCLA.
Over time, his career has shifted between practicing medicine and conducting medical research. The two ways of thinking can be different, but both elements of medicine overlap and can make stronger physicians and researchers.
His early training was as a pediatric hematologist/oncologist; he also completed a genetics fellowship. For decades, he has been involved in genomics research, which has greatly advanced in the past 10 years, as well as seeing patients.
"It was helpful for me to prepare by doing a post-doctoral fellowship that allowed me to train in a specific area outside of medicine but related to medicine," he said. "The strength of UCLA is that you have a large campus with cutting-edge mathematics, engineering, public health, law, and more. We have physicians who have trained in mathematics and are bringing that to genetics research. They are building the field of bioinformatics."
Shifting between research and practice
In the early part of his career, Dr. Nelson treated pediatric patients with cancer, while also advancing the understanding of genomics and its role in treating cancer and other diseases. Throughout his career, he has seen research and practice merge to push these technologies into practice.
Most recently, he has been using his pediatrics and genetics background for research in rare genetic disorders, particularly Duchenne muscular dystrophy. His son was diagnosed with the disease, and Dr. Nelson realized the opportunities for research that could bring more hope and treatment options to his son and other families in the same situation. Because the disease is progressive and no cure has been developed yet, the medical community in the past would aim for comfort, feeling that options were limited. That has since changed.
"We can slow the disease and deal with issues the kids face over the course of their lives," Dr. Nelson said. "New ideas within genomics and genetics are coming into the field, giving us a lot more options."
Dr. Nelson sees patients at the Center for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at UCLA, where he is a co-director, while also leading research in the field. He established the Clinical Genomics Center at UCLA, and is working to improve the care options for families with a child who has Duchenne or other rare genetic muscle diseases.
Finding your "and"
Dr. Nelson encourages students to treat their medical school education as the general education it is. Students get an overview of the human body and can experience many aspects of the field while at UCLA. Those interested in conducting medical research can also look outside the medical school to other related fields that offer experience they can bring to a research lab.
"During your education, you should be looking at not only how to best perform medicine in 2016, but also how to improve medicine so that in 2040 it looks different than it does today," he said. "Students in medical school have an amazing set of opportunities for outstanding scholarship in a variety of areas that combine well with being a physician."