Vivian Szymczuk, MD, is a new clinical fellow in the Pediatric Endocrinology Inter-Institute Training Program. Before arriving at the NIH this year, Dr. Szymczuk attended medical school at the University of Medicine and Health Sciences St. Kitts, followed by residency training at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. She most appreciates spending time with and learning from her patients, who she considers truly the best teachers. Outside of research and medical work, she enjoys yoga, video games (especially Civilization 6) and being out on the water on a paddle board.
We asked Dr. Szymczuk a few questions about her research and clinical interests to get to know the person behind the degree. Introducing Dr. Szymczuk:
What are your specific research interests?
I recently joined the Skeletal Disorders and Mineral Homeostasis Section of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. I am in the early phase of developing a research project, but I am most interested in translational research. I very much enjoy the cellular biology aspects of research as well as clinical applicability.
What influenced you to go into pediatric endocrinology?
Many experiences starting early in my life and throughout my training have shaped my desire for a career involving the clinical and academic aspects of pediatric endocrinology. While I have very much enjoyed all aspects of my general pediatrics training, there is nothing that compares to the excitement I experience with endocrine cases. My clinical interest in endocrinology first started when my younger sister developed Type 1 Diabetes. It was at that time that I was exposed to the awesome power of the pediatricians that brought her back to health, which left an impact that I carry with me when caring for patients to this day. This experience allows me to appreciate the emotions that a child and their family are going through and how their lives are about to change. It continues to inform the way I empower them to manage their difficult condition.
Aside from this personal relationship with endocrinology in my own life, this field is also the most intellectually interesting and stimulating to me. Every specialty requires a basic science understanding to inform management; however, I feel that in endocrinology the biomolecular and cellular level of understanding—which to me is the most fascinating—has a clinical application of basic science that directly relates to and explains the intriguing presentations of endocrine disorders. I have loved jigsaw puzzles for as long as I can remember. Clinical practice is the most enthralling of puzzles, uncovering pieces and integrating them together to form a coherent whole, proceeding systematically from the mystery of the unknown to the deep satisfaction of the known. This is why I wake up in the morning. This love of the biomolecular and cellular level of inquiry that is so clinically relevant also naturally leads to my deep desire to pursue endocrine research.
What led you to the NIH?
Along with this evolution of my interest in the clinical aspects of endocrinology, there was a parallel series of experiences that developed my desire for research. I chose the NIH given the advanced research training I could obtain here.
I was first exposed to research during my undergraduate honors project. I became the only undergraduate student selected for a position with the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, where I learned the experimental techniques necessary to independently investigate a cellular mechanism involved in muscular dystrophy. There was one especially astonishing moment where I held a petri dish of newly differentiated muscle cells and saw them contract. I have pursued research ever since, much of which has been clinical in nature.
As a medical student on my pediatric orthopedic surgery rotation, I spearheaded multiple projects, which resulted in being offered a position as a research fellow at the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics and the International Center for Limb Lengthening in Baltimore, prior to residency. Within residency, I continued to pursue research opportunities as they emerged in various fields, but I was most drawn to my work on hyperthyrotropinemia and diabetic ketoacidosis.
Related to academics in general, I deeply appreciate communicating my hard-earned knowledge to the next generation of physicians to further expand my impact. It is why I have consistently pursued teaching throughout my life, and why I will continue to do so in the future. Sharing in the experience of understanding is yet another joy afforded to me in this fascinating field, and I want to teach both the clinical and research aspects of medicine, which is another reason for picking the NIH.