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Peter Aronson Delivers Farr Lecture

May 14, 2024
by Abigail Roth

Peter Aronson, MD, C.N.H. Long Professor of Medicine (Nephrology) and professor of cellular and molecular physiology gave the Lee E. Farr MD Endowed Lectureship at Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) annual Student Research Day on May 7. Using his own experiences as examples in his lecture titled From Sugar to Salt to Stones: Serendipitous Journey as Mentee and Mentor, Aronson noted the importance of chance events and serendipitous research findings in determining the course of his academic development and research career. Aronson described growing up in New York in the 1950s; his parents were clothing salespeople who had not gone to college. Because he had allergic asthma, he frequently had appointments with his pediatrician, Dr. Simon Kove, for desensitization injections. Kove became his mentor, giving him a microscope, helping him get summer research jobs, and writing him letters of recommendation for college and medical school. As a result of this chance relationship, Aronson had the early career goal to pursue academic medicine and biomedical research, which persisted, he noted, despite a lack of scientific publications in college, medical school, or residency.

Early research experiences

Receiving a full scholarship to NYU for medical school (Aronson showed a slide of the telegram giving him this news), after being rejected without interviews from some other New York schools, greatly impacted his future career. He was able to attend a research-intensive medical school and graduate debt-free. Research opportunities during medical school enabled Aronson to gain experience in ion transport physiology.

After residency training in internal medicine at the University of North Carolina, Aronson pursued research training in the NIH lab of Bertram Sacktor, PhD, an expert in the biochemistry of fly flight muscle. Aronson had selected a lab working on muscle energy metabolism because of potential interest in cardiology as a specialty. However, the Sacktor lab had developed a side project to study sugar transport in membranes isolated from kidney cells. With his medical school background in transport physiology, Aronson chose to work on this side project, which led to his demonstration that sugar transport in these kidney membranes takes place by cotransport with sodium, which led, finally, to his first major publication.

Arriving at Yale

Aronson then sought career advice about what to do next from Louis Welt, MD, his former chair of medicine at North Carolina who had moved to Yale as chair of medicine. Welt arranged for Aronson to pursue nephrology fellowship training at Yale, which was one of the world’s leading centers for kidney physiology research. Although Welt died before Aronson arrived, Aronson found a welcoming, collaborative environment at YSM in which he could thrive. Sterling Professor of Physiology Gerhard Giebisch, MD, became a lifelong mentor, advisor, and sponsor. When Aronson later joined the YSM faculty with a primary appointment in internal medicine, he was generously provided office and laboratory space in the Department of Physiology, the ideal environment for his lab to flourish.

Aronson described examples of serendipitous research findings that led to new research directions. For example, knockout in mice of a transporter thought to be involved in renal NaCl homeostasis unexpectedly gave a phenotype of calcium oxalate kidney stones. This led to identification of the role of this transporter in secretion of oxalate into the intestine, a process that limits net absorption of dietary oxalate and thereby prevents the high urine oxalate that would otherwise result from ingesting an oxalate-rich diet. Aronson encouraged students to take note of serendipitous research findings, and emphasized that being at an institution like Yale, which has a highly collaborative culture and strength in many different areas of science, best enables one to take advantage of such unexpected results to pursue new research directions.

Impact of training people

What has been most satisfying in his career, Aronson said, has been his role in training people, who will train people, who will train people, etc., in an amplifying process that will advance the field of medicine far into the future. During his lecture he showed a slide listing past trainees, and pointed out several people who now are in leadership roles at YSM and other institutions. Although you cannot know for sure that your research will lead to a transformative discovery, Aronson said, you can be sure to advance the field of medicine by engaging in the amplifying process of education and mentorship of students and trainees.

In closing, Aronson honored the late John N. Forrest, Jr., professor emeritus of medicine and the founding director of YSM’s Office of Student Research. Forrest, he said, “exemplified extraordinary commitment to the process of education and mentorship,” adding “we should all be inspired by his example of what is most gratifying in academic medicine.”

Read more about Student Research Day in this article.

Submitted by Abigail Roth on May 14, 2024