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Issue 12013

Young, Gifted & Curious

Dr. Amy Courtney is researching how natural killer
T cell antitumor activity can be used to fight neuroblastoma.

Erika E. Hayes

Photos by Allen Kramer

Texas Children’s Hospital is one of many hospitals in the nation where young physician-scientists and basic scientists are recruited, mentored and cultivated.

Many 30-somethings are focused on building a career, growing a family, or buying a first home. And for a handful, these milestones accompany early scientific and medical achievements that can help advance understanding and save lives for years to come.

For these gifted individuals, early professional success is the result of several factors: individual drive and ability; the opportunity to work within an institution that provides even young researchers with significant resources; and access to mentors who can teach, support and motivate them.

Life is like an experiment

Amy Courtney, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow with Texas Children’s Cancer Center, is one of these talented young scientists. Courtney, 30, is researching how natural killer T cell (NKT) antitumor activity may be used to fight neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops from nerve tissue.

She is the 2012 winner of the American Association of Immunologists Abstract Trainee Award and was the recipient of the Keystone Symposia Future of Science Scholarship. Courtney also has contributed to several peer-reviewed publications.

She balances her life-changing work with a growing young family — she and her husband had a baby girl, Amanda, in September. Some say she makes it look much too easy. She said she learned long ago to apply what the field of science forces you to learn: don’t stress.

“Life is just like an experiment — you have a plan, and some days things work out, and some days, with no explanation, they don’t,” she said. “All you can do is keep trying. When you’re young and want to achieve great things, it is easy to get stressed, but eventually you realize it isn’t going to benefit you.”

Her peer group also keeps her grounded and encourages her along the way.

“They are incredibly supportive of the fact that I am a scientist,” she said. “It’s nice to have people around you who are proud of the work you do.”

What mattered most

Christian Schaaf, M.D., Ph.D., said he can identify with the struggle to balance. Schaaf is a physician-scientist at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute (NRI) at Texas Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His work at the NRI is focused on exploring how the brain is affected when genes are altered, deleted or duplicated.

Schaaf has already identified chromosomal differences in patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. He is the winner of the Doris Duke Clinical Scientist Development Award for his study of how the brain processes sensory stimuli that affect intellectual disability, autism and other neuropsychiatric problems. All this, and he’s only 33.

Schaaf admits that he never anticipated being where he is in his career so soon.

“I’m grateful that I decided to come to the kind of place where my age and enthusiasm have consistently been valued — I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a Southern thing,” said Schaaf, a native of Germany. “But since I’ve been here, I’ve always felt that what mattered most was my ability to do my job.”

And he does it well, extending his work from the lab to the classroom. Schaaf teaches from his top-selling textbook on genetics, Human Genetics: From Molecules to Medicine, which was first published in German and has been translated to English, and he’s currently working on an iPad version.

Schaaf said his ultimate goal is to use basic science to identify a treatment that could be used to help children with neurological and psychiatric disorders.

“I wouldn’t mind if the treatment I discovered could be applied to 100 kids or 100,000 kids,” he said. “Just knowing that my life’s work helps sick children is what’s important to me.”

Dr. Christian Schaaf

Physician-scientist Dr. Christian Schaaf, with wife Kathrin and son Felix, juggles the demands of a growing family and thriving career in research.

Balancing act

Although he spends the majority of his time conducting research, Schaaf also remains dedicated to his responsibilities in the Texas Children’s Hospital genetics clinic, where he sees patients with neuropsychiatric disorders.

“So much is going on at this point in most people’s lives, professionally and personally, that a lot of young physician-scientists struggle with balancing life,” Schaaf said. “That balance is important. I want to take the time to conduct great research and see my patients — and that’s just one part of the balancing act. I also want to be more than my job. I want to have a great relationship with my wife, Kathrin, and my son, Felix.” Schaaf and Kathrin had another son, Lukas, in October.

Right place at the right time

Courtney and Schaaf agree that one of the benefits to being so successful in science at such a young age is the opportunity to have great mentors. Schaaf trained under Huda Y. Zoghbi, M.D., one of the world’s leading neurogeneticists. Zoghbi is responsible for the co-discovery of a mutation in the gene known as ATAXN-1, which can lead to spinocerebellar ataxia type 1, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes a person to lose control of their motor function.

Zoghbi also discovered that mutations in the gene MECP2 cause Rett syndrome and that the same mutations can cause a variety of other neuropsychiatric disorders, ranging from learning deficits to early-onset schizophrenia.

“Having Dr. Zoghbi as a mentor is incredibly significant,” Schaaf said. “As a young scientist especially, it’s important to recognize what an incredible advantage that is. How many young researchers can say they’ve been trained by one of the best in the world? If you are in the right place at the right time, you will have people who want to teach you and help you be successful. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that Dr. Zoghbi has given me.”

Courtney also has had the opportunity to work as a postdoctoral fellow with mentors such as Leonid Metelitsa, M.D., Ph.D., a leading scientist with Texas Children’s Cancer Center. In Metelitsa’s lab, Courtney is conducting cutting-edge research on novel forms of immunotherapy for childhood cancer. She is also acquiring critical research skills from Metelitsa on how to plan research projects and apply for funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, which has a highly competitive peer-review process.

In addition to mentorship, funding — which has forever been critical to successful research — is sometimes available specifically for young investigators. Some funding organizations — such as The Gruber Foundation and the Thrasher Research Fund — provide grants and resources for researchers under a certain age or who are just beginning their journeys in research.

Start early

Metelitsa and Zoghbi remember what it was like to be at the onset of a budding research career. They relate to Courtney’s and Schaaf’s ambition and their passion for new discoveries.

“I owe my career to my clinical and research mentors,” Zoghbi said. “Recognizing what a difference they have made in my work as a physician-scientist, I feel strongly that it is my duty to pass on what they have taught me.”

Zoghbi said mentors to young researchers need to advise, nurture and support by sharing what they learned from their successes and mistakes, by encouraging when the road to discovery seems impossible, and by providing input on research ideas, experiments and grants.

“Last but not least, mentors need to be a source of support and advice when issues of managing a career and life come up,” Zoghbi said.

Metelitsa was just 20 years old when he began scientific research in medical school. He recalls being groomed by brilliant minds who stepped back and allowed him to form and express his own ideas. From those experiences, he learned never to micromanage and has always worked under the belief that students should be given as much independence as they can handle.

“Being a young researcher can be a challenge, but when it comes to science, it is best to start early,” Metelitsa said. “In fact, it is critical that scientists start as early as possible to reach their fullest potential.”