Marie Egan of YSM’s Department of Pediatrics has had a long and successful career helping patients and advancing research. Her advice to new doctors? Don’t dip your toe in the water: jump in.
What brought you into pediatrics?
As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, I planned to be a scientist. I loved schoolwork, but it was hard for me to focus just on the academic side of things—I wanted more human contact. I decided to volunteer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They were short on play therapists, so I started running a playroom for sick children. I was 18, and I think the children saw me as a big kid. I started to notice they were free and open when talking to each other. Adults and white coats weren’t encouraged to come into the playrooms.
I kept seeing the same children, and learned they had cystic fibrosis (CF). They knew how sick they were. They talked about who had died, who was still living, and who had been hospitalized. But the moment adults or parents came in, their tone would totally change. They were talking like little kids again, I think for their parent’s sake. It kind of blew my mind. I don’t think anyone should have to be that brave at that age. I knew I wanted to be involved in science and molecular biology, but I realized at that point I could take things to the next level and be a doctor, to try and help allow kids to be kids.
What adversity have you faced?
It’s one thing to be bright and innovative. In the world of science, you need to understand that the first time you do something it might work out brilliantly, but it’s the next 15 times you do it that will verify your success, which can take a very long time and yield results that aren’t what you hoped for.
Which accomplishments bring you pride?
From a career standpoint, I’m proud of the fact that so many patients tell me I’ve made a difference in their lives, and of the brilliant people I’ve mentored. From a research standpoint, I have several accomplishments that may be important, including high-impact papers I’ve published in well-regarded journals.
Also, when I first started doing work on CF as a disease, some people thought it was derivative, that it made one’s work less pure than working on a physiologic process. But over the last 20 years, I’ve gotten a lot more people interested in studying CF, and they’re making a huge impact on how we understand and treat the disease and improve patient care.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am working on a project with the chair of therapeutic radiology, Peter Glazer, MD, PhD, and Mark Saltzman, MD, PhD, with the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering, focusing on a gene editing approach for CF. There are certain changes in the CFTR gene that cause genetic mutations that lead to CF. Editing those out could basically cure someone. Right now, we can do this in cell cultures and animal models, but the goal is to keep refining this to be able to provide it as a therapeutic.
Any advice for those entering medicine?
Every day, I love coming to work. I get to be creative, to really think, and I’m never bored. I also think it’s an incredible honor and privilege to help people navigate chronic illness and disease. I do think people should know this type of journey is not one where you can put a toe in the water; you really have to jump in. Don’t think you’ll get rich or famous, don’t think it’ll be easier with time, but know it will be incredibly rewarding.