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Road Less Traveled: Cardiologist Shares Unique Journey to Becoming a Physician-Scientist

rajan jain
Rajan Jain, MD

Rajan Jain, MD, an assistant professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Cell and Developmental Biology, believes his interest in science might be genetic, as his family is comprised of many scientists and physicians. Jain, however, is both.

A physician-scientist, Jain treats patients as a cardiologist in addition to seeking new knowledge about stem cell biology, heart development, and genome organization in his lab.

In April, Jain was awarded the Donald Seldin~Holly Smith Award for Pioneering Research from the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), receiving $30,000 to advance his lab’s efforts, while also being selected to deliver a scientific talk at the Association of American Physicians (AAP), ASCI, and American Physician-Scientists Association (APSA) joint meeting in 2022.

In this Q&A, Jain reflects on his unique journey to becoming a physician-scientist and discusses his lab’s work in cell identity and mutations.

Briefly describe your background and how you came to Penn.

My lab experience in undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley solidified my interest in science, but my interest in medicine developed along the way. I came to Penn 16 years ago after medical school for my internship and residency in Internal Medicine.

I had a unique path in coming to research in the sense that I’m an MD, not an MD-PhD. Upon arriving at Penn, I met Jonathan Epstein, MD, executive vice dean, chief scientific officer, and the William Wikoff Smith Professor of Cardiovascular Research in the Perelman School of Medicine, and convinced him and my program director to let me do some work in his lab. I ultimately got “bit by the research bug” and took two years between internship and residency to dedicate myself to research efforts in the lab. While I don’t have a PhD, I would argue that physicians can direct all flavors of research, including basic-work like I do, while also seeing patients and teaching trainees. I think that’s really the awesome power of being a physician-scientist.

What inspired you to do the type of research you’re doing?

When I was training at Penn, I started to see a shift in patients who were presenting with symptoms of heart attacks. Originally, I had seen a lot of patients with blocked coronary arteries, the blood vessels that feed the heart. We’ve gotten very good at treating patients who are in the midst of heart attacks such that they don’t pass away. However, now a lot of those patients develop heart failure, where the heart muscle cannot contract well.

I also trained in an era where DNA sequencing was just beginning to become more readily available. We were able to begin correlating mutations in genes to symptoms that a person might present with. I was super excited about this and that motivated my interests in being in the lab and deciphering how a mutation leads to congenital heart disease, heart failure, and a host of other syndromes.

jain video
As part of his efforts to communicate scientific findings clearly to the public, Jain visualized his recent Cell Stem Cell study in an informative video.

What research are you currently undertaking?

We’re interested in understanding how a cell forms and how it remembers what type of cell it is supposed to be over the lifetime of a human. An example I like to say is, how does a cell decide to become a liver cell versus a heart muscle cell? What are the genes, proteins, and molecules involved with this process? Are there diseases that are associated with the loss of a cell’s ability to remember itself and what it is supposed to do? We’re interested in understanding this problem of so-called cellular identity and how DNA is organized and interpreted so that a heart muscle cell, skin cell, or brain cell forms. We don’t think this process is random, and we’re trying to understand the rules that govern that organization.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a scientist and where do you see the greatest opportunities?

The training path for physician-scientists is a challenge. I’m a doctor that cares for patients and I also have a lab. It’s a long path with lots of unique obstacles, both personal and professional, and as a community we need to do a much better job of addressing those for the next generation of trainees. I’ve been lucky to have a host of amazing mentors, but how do we ensure that people are exposed to this path and those who are interested in get the mentorship they need along the way?

I also think that scientists need to do a better job at communicating their findings in clear and understandable terms to the public. I’m a firm believer that good science and experiments will lead us to the next era of novel treatments, and it’s important to communicate this with the broader populace. For example, who knew that studying how bacteria defend themselves against a virus would allow us to potentially cure sickle cell and a host of other diseases? And that similar methodological research has been able to create a vaccine for COVID-19 at a remarkably fast pace. The common theme of these groundbreaking discoveries is not luck; it’s just well-founded, well-rooted science asking a fundamental question and taking an even better approach to answering it. What used to take decades is getting condensed into years with the kind of technology we can use and research we can do. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say there’s no better time to be a physician or scientist than right now.


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