October 02, 2020

Kathleen Collins, MD, PhD: Connecting the pieces

Physician-scientists-in-training receive specialized mentoring and advising at Michigan Medical School.

As the newly appointed Associate Dean for Physician Scientist Education and Training in the Medical School, Kathleen Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is responsible for directing all aspects of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), as well as coordinating, integrating and administering activities related to the physician-scientist postgraduate training programs.

Dr. Collins is a professor of microbiology and immunology and internal medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases. Her research focuses on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) biology and the mechanisms of HIV disease pathogenesis. The Collins lab focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying HIV persistence. To provide better therapies, her team is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms of viral persistence within cellular reservoirs.

Dr. Collins earned her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Medical Scientist Training Program. She received clinical training in internal medicine at Harvard University’s affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Then, she trained as an infectious disease fellow in a combined Harvard-affiliated program and did postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Here, Dr. Collins answers nine questions about her vision for the programs she oversees, her personal story of becoming a physician-scientist, her advice for prospective M.D./Ph.D. students and why she believes the University of Michigan is an ideal training ground.

What interested you about the role of associate dean for physician-scientist education and training at the University of Michigan Medical School?

I am really interested in post-graduate physician-scientist programs that MSTP students may engage in after they complete the M.D./Ph.D. program. Some post-graduate training programs do a phenomenal job, and trainees leave well-prepared to succeed as physician-scientists. Others have very few or no physician-scientist trainees and lack formal physician-scientist training programs. To fully support physician-scientists there needs to be more of a continuum of physician-scientist training from the MSTP through the postdoctoral training programs.

At Michigan, I think that many of these programs could do more if they worked together collaboratively and more often shared best practices amongst all the departments. Therefore, my goal is to provide a platform through which postgraduate physician-scientist training programs at U-M can communicate, integrate and synergistically enhance postdoctoral physician-scientist training.

Describe your day-to-day responsibilities as the MSTP director, and your vision for the program going forward.

I have the best job in the world. My day-to-day responsibilities include mentoring and advising enrolled or prospective students. They are extremely talented, very hard working and very good-hearted people who are committed to making a difference through their research and personal mentoring skills. It’s truly a privilege to have a chance to facilitate the development of these students and trainees.

Some of the best mentoring is done when our more senior trainees interact with our more junior ones. We do everything we can to facilitate those critical interactions. Bringing them together in an intentional way for activities and programs that also enrich their career development is a key part of our program that requires careful planning. 

We also spend a lot of time with recruiting and admissions, which is a really big job because we receive so many applications to our program.

Why did you personally decide to pursue an M.D./Ph.D.?

From a very early age, I wanted to care for people who were sick. I was influenced strongly by my mother who was a registered nurse. I really valued the skills she had developed to promote the health of patients she cared for. But it was really my father who pushed me to consider becoming a doctor. That idea really captured my imagination, and I began to work towards that goal. 

It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I was introduced to research when a faculty member at Wellesley College offered to show me what it was like to work in his lab. This experience lit a fire that has continued to burn ever since. The possibility that I could uncover new knowledge that could potentially help many people was a real inspiration to me that has driven my research ever since. It dawned on me that I could spend my life doing research and be really happy, and I didn’t want to stop.

What do you enjoy most about being a physician-scientist?

When I first began working in the lab, I loved making things – buffers, gels, blots – and most of all I loved the excitement of uncovering the results of an experiment by developing a film or measuring a set of readings. Now, I experience that same excitement through my trainees. I love it when they come into my office excited about a finding that surprised and delighted them. I also now have the feeling of pride when my trainees leave the lab and go off to develop their own careers.

What challenges have you faced as a physician-scientist, and how do you hope to help current MSTP students with their challenges?

There are many challenges to being either a scientist or a physician that physician-scientists share. But an important challenge I think is more unique to physician-scientists is that the very broad training they receive makes them skilled in a wide variety of valuable tasks. This means that physician-scientists can potentially be asked to do a lot of very different jobs. Because of this, there is a risk that they might not be as successful as they really want to be because they are spread too thin. It helped me to try to figure out what my personal goals were and to try really hard to focus on those. Sometimes this meant that I had to give up other things I really enjoyed, which was hard.

I hope to help current MSTP students achieve their personal goals by helping them figure out what they want to do most and by helping them find the best way to do it. I like telling them that one of the most important things they can do to achieve what they want is to figure out what they want. It sounds trivial but it’s really important – especially for M.D./Ph.Ds.

What is your advice to someone who is considering whether or not to pursue an M.D./Ph.D.?

I would recommend they spend sufficient time in a lab environment to see if it is a place they enjoy. It takes dedication and persistence to be a physician- scientist. Really loving science and feeling a strong pull to be in the lab is important to make the long process worthwhile. It is also essential to get a solid experience in a clinical environment working with patients so that you have a good idea of what that part of the career will entail.

Describe the MSTP students at Michigan and why you enjoy working with them.

One of the greatest things about the MSTP students is how individual and unique they all are. Each has an interesting story to tell that matures and blossoms as they move through the training program. They are dedicated, committed and passionate people who are a delight to work with.

What do you like to do outside of the med school?

I love spending time with my two teenage sons – especially when we go on vacations where we can ski or hike. We have explored a pretty good number of national parks, and those were some of my favorite adventures. I like to stay mindful of my physical health by frequently exercising; Pilates and elliptical are my current favorites. I enjoy all kinds of animals. We currently have four cats, three guppies, five catfish and three shrimp. We recently got 1,000 worms for composting, which is kind of unpleasant but it’s for a good cause. I also enjoy trying to grow interesting plants. I have several orchids that I’ve gotten to bloom repeatedly, and I also grow carnivorous plants, which are very useful if you have fruit flies in your house. Outside I have tomatoes, peppers and a couple stalks of corn for fun. 

In your opinion, what makes the University of Michigan Medical School an ideal place to pursue an M.D./Ph.D.?

So many things! The breadth and depth of the entire University of Michigan community across its multiple campuses is truly remarkable. The close ties between the hospital, basic research, translational research and educational communities are ideal for an academic physician- scientist trainee. The friendly, collegial and collaborative nature of the faculty, and the tremendous focus they have on student training creates the perfect environment for MSTP students to flourish.