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MSTP graduate inspired to chase zebras, find answers in medicine

by Cindy Abole

Public Relations
It’s Medical Scientist in Training graduate Jamie Fraser’s dream to hunt down zebras throughout her career.
There’s a saying taught in medical schools that’s meant to challenge students to think rationally and practically as physicians in training. The phrase, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras,” was coined by University of Maryland School of Medicine professor Theodore Woodward, M.D.,  as a reminder to students that the most obvious cause and explanation is usually the most common and correct one as it relates to a patient’s diagnosis and treatment.   
Dr. Jamie Fraser with husband, Brent and daughter, Zoe

Thankfully, the Hiram, Ga., native won’t need to travel to the open plains of Tanzania to seek training or carry special equipment to accomplish this feat. Fraser will be training in genetics, which includes the study of examining rare diseases or zebras.
She’ll only need the critical thinking skills, valuable training and research techniques she has already honed in the last eight years at MUSC. That,  combined with her tenacious attitude and proficiency to ask good questions and seek answers, will make the difference in the lives of her patients, their families and others suffering from rare genetic disorders and conditions.
Fraser is among four M.D./Ph.D. degree candidates and one DMD/Ph.D. student who will be among the last students to receive their diplomas in the May 21 commencement.  
In less than a week, Fraser, along with husband, Brent and daughter, Zoe, 2-1/2, will relocate about 545 miles north of Charleston to College Park, Md., where she’ll start a coveted five-year combined pediatric and medical genetics residency July 1 at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Children’s National Medical Center and National Human Genome Institute in Bethesda, Md. She was the first choice out of a handful of applicants who competed nationally for this dual specialty residency spot.
“This is an exciting program and opportunity for me,” said Fraser, who will conduct her internship year at Children’s Medical Center. “The NIH and National Human Genome Institute help patients, especially those people who suffer from very rare and undiagnosed genetic diseases and disorders. The NIH also hosts an undiagnosed diseases program that helps find answers for patients and advances the medical knowledge learned about some rare diseases. I’m excited about the opportunity of being involved in new discoveries and treatments that may cure people.”
“Jamie’s residency is a terrific opportunity for her and yet another example of the type of high quality students our program produces,” said Perry V. Halushka, M.D., Ph.D.,  dean of the College of Graduate Studies  and program director. “Our graduates are able to go on to the best internships, residencies and fellowships in the country. For Jamie to be selected one out of five people competing is quite an accomplishment. We’re very proud of Jamie and know that she’ll do well as both a pediatrician and human geneticist in the future.”
Fraser began her journey at MUSC in July 2002. She came to Charleston after graduating from Agnes Scott College in 2001 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. She spent an interim year conducting research at Emory University and preparing for the combined medicine and graduate studies track. For the first two years, she followed the medical school curriculum and completed her basic science classes.  

Starting in 2004, she spent her research years working with Ling Wei, M.D., former associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Wei, who was at MUSC from 2001 to 2008, conducted translational research focusing on cell injury, protection and recovery in cerebral strokes. Fraser's research focused on the brain’s response to stroke injury in neonatal rat models. Perinatal and neonatal stroke affects one in 4,000 newborns and approximately 25 percent of those infants suffer from long-term impairments like cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other developmental delays. Fraser specifically looked at understanding the signaling molecules and repair strategies that occur while the brain attempts to recover, while also examining other responses including the effect of gender on functional outcomes.
“Jamie was able to apply her research experience, medical school knowledge and learned skills and techniques for acquiring and analyzing data to conduct  sound translational research,” said Wei,  who is now a professor and John E. Steinhaus Endowed Chair in Anesthesiology at Emory University in Atlanta. “She’s extremely smart, patient, articulate and compassionate to others. She’ll make an excellent physician-scientist.“
Throughout her studies, Fraser also enjoyed what life had to offer her. In 2006, she met and married Brent, an industrial and systems engineer who worked at the Space and Naval Warfare Charleston. Prior to resuming medical school and starting her clinical experiences, Fraser was pregnant with daughter, Zoe, during her final year of her graduate studies curriculum. Her daughter’s birth in September 2007 challenged Fraser to find balance between motherhood, research responsibilities and remaining clinical years as a developing physician-scientist. She was grateful for the advice and support shared by many role models on campus and the dean’s office staff.
“It’s not unusual for women to start a family while continuing in the program,” Halushka said of Fraser, who joins MSTP graduates Michelle Crosby (2005) and Laura Spruill (2008) who all became mothers as students. “I think it’s a tribute to women in the program who are able to start a family, raise a child, and continue with their studies through graduate and medical school and still come out at the top of their class, plus get their first choices in residency. It’s also a testament to the flexibility of our program in supporting students.”
Motherhood experiences also helped steer Fraser’s interest in neonatology and pediatrics. Although she loved conducting neonatal research work, she wasn’t prepared for the demands associated with the fast-paced, think-on-your-feet, acute care setting that focuses on the care of newborn, sick and premature babies. Instead,  Fraser chose general pediatrics after rotating with Patricia McBurney, M.D., Sharron Jackson, M.D., and staff in the Department of Pediatrics.
“I love the fact that little children can bounce back quickly after being so ill,” she said. “Kids are so happy-go-lucky, even when they’re not feeling their best.”
Fraser also felt drawn and inspired to these medical specialties through family experiences. At age 16, she helped her mother and aunt care for a cousin who was born 10 weeks premature. Fraser remembers being fascinated with the skill of the neonatologists and caregivers in her cousin’s care for those five weeks that she eagerly helped out when her cousin came home. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”
On the opposite spectrum, Fraser experienced the reality of death witnessing the final hours of her niece, Anna Katherine, who died at 5-1/2 weeks in 2008. Her niece, the youngest of twin girls born to her brother and sister-in-law, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
“Although I believe my niece received the most amazing care available, no one was prepared for what ultimately happened,” she said. “It was both a tragic and amazing experience for me, because now I know how it feels to be sitting and waiting for news and have that perspective. I’ve learned that communicating and updating patients and their families about their situation is very important. I want to keep them informed and let them know that they are never alone. It’s what I require of myself.”
When asked if Fraser’s journey to becoming a pediatrician was everything she had imagined, she paused in reflection before replying.
“One never can know what the journey is like until you live it,” said Fraser. “There are so many subsets to this job than what people see in TV dramas. Those are all fictional and the profession is portrayed to be fun and glamorous.  Medicine, to me,  is so much better than that. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I find it both an honor and privilege to care for people and hope I can do this to the best of my ability every day. “

Friday, May 21, 2010

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