Career Pathways—From Postbac to Physician Researcher

Seth Judson, M.D., former NIAID postbac and internal medicine resident at the University of Washington Medical Center.

Credit: NIAID

Interviewed by Maricarmen Hernandez, postbac in the Malaria Functional Genomics Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

The “Career Pathways—Explore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on a physician who has a particular interest in conducting research. Seth Judson, M.D., was a postbac in the Virus Ecology Section of the Laboratory of Virology at Rocky Mountain Laboratories under the supervision of Vincent Munster, Ph.D. He followed his postbac training with a doctorate of medicine from David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Judson is currently an internal medicine resident at the University of Washington Medical Center where he works on globally emerging zoonotic diseases and pandemic preparedness. 

What research were you engaged in at NIAID?

I was a postbac in 2014 to 2015 as a member of the Laboratory of Virology under the supervision of Vincent Munster, Ph.D. My research interest is in zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola viruses and coronaviruses. I have been very fortunate to continue working with Dr. Munster since completing my postbac, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Did your postbac position impact your decision to pursue an M.D. over a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D.?

I did a one-year postbac while I applied to medical school. I knew I liked research, but I also wanted to work with people. Sometimes I felt like research could be too far removed from its translation and to its effect on patients. 

I love patient care, but also, I like to think about the big picture. How do we help the population? Science allows you to tackle this question. You have the creative power to do this. You have the freedom and ability to explore your questions. My passion on the clinical side was focused on patients and those exposed to emerging zoonotic diseases and human interactions with animals. On the research side, I was interested in thinking about how we can do a better job at detecting, treating, and mitigating the emergence of zoonotic diseases. 

I applied to M.D./Ph.D. programs; however, at the time there are not many that facilitated the type of Ph.D. research that I would have wanted, a Ph.D. in zoonotic diseases, virology and epidemiology, or ecology. During that time, I received advice from one of my mentors from Stanford, microbiologist Dr. Stanley Falkow: “You do not need a Ph.D. to do research; you can have an M.D. and do research.” Although a Ph.D. provides valuable research training, I knew that I wanted to gain clinical training that would then better inform my research.

For me, my decision to go the M.D. route has worked. It is important to note, that if you do want to ultimately purse both medicine and research, you should try to continue to do research during medical school. I found out in medical school that opportunities to conduct research can present themselves along the way. For example, the NIH Clinical Center offers a one-year program to pursue research during medical school called the Medical Research Scholars Program

What type of research are you currently engaged in? Do you see patients?

I currently do research during my residency and during my free time. Residency is hard; you work long hours, and it is focused on patient care. Fortunately, I am in the Global Health Pathway here at the University of Washington, meaning I get a couple of months a year to do research. 

What types of skills and experiences are key to succeeding in your position?

I established great collaborations during my postbac and medical school. It has been incredible to continue working with researchers who I have worked with previously. When I was in medical school, I worked in Cameroon on emerging zoonotic viruses, and when COVID-19 emerged I was able to work with same collaborators. There were many questions about COVID-19 in Africa that I was able to address. 

My postbac mentor, Dr. Vincent Munster, was one of the first scientists to work with SARS-CoV-2 in the lab. In tandem, I saw some of the first patients with COVID-19 in Seattle, so it was nice to answer questions together. This is one of the greatest things about science—collaborating, getting to know other scientists, and working together to answer questions and develop solutions.

Can you talk about your work/life balance and how it has changed since you started medical school?

I believe your work/life balance changes based on where you are in your career. It is important to think about it and it is important to define what this balance is for you. For example, for some postbacs the most immediate stage is medical school. During medical school, loads of information is given to you, so setting boundaries for yourself is important. Sometimes it feels like you can study all the time, but discrete time slots in your day are important. Make sure to continue to pursue your hobbies. It becomes hard during medical school and residency because your time is limited, but it is possible. 

What advice would you give postbacs who want to pursue research as an M.D.?

Finding mentorship is important. There are different types of mentors: there are “life” mentors who are living the type of life you want to live; then there are the “research” or “clinical” mentors who are those who are further in their career who can provide great advice. 

The postbac opportunity is unique—it is nice to have some formal research experience prior to going into medical school. Really utilizing this is important to learn what research you like and what kind of questions you hope to answer in the future. A postbac can shape and open doors for your future. 

What’s next for you?

I am finishing up my residency at the University of Washington this year, and I will be an infectious disease fellow at Johns Hopkins University in 2022. 

When picking a medical school or residency program I recommend thinking of… 

  1. Location: This is a very personal thing—for example, do you have family, do you need to be close to your family? Affordability? Does your partner need to work in a certain location? 
  2. Training Opportunities and Education: Different programs offer different trainings in medical school. For example, at some medical schools you can work at many different hospitals, or some schools offer special tracks like a master of public health.
  3. Career Opportunities of Alumni: Where are people getting jobs? Are they staying on as faculty? Are they taking certain career paths? You can get a sense of this by talking to current students. The answer to these questions will change as you continue to grow.
Learn more about postbaccalaureate training opportunities at NIAID.
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