September 18, 2018

Fostering Collaboration

By Stephanie Abraham and Landon Hudson; article first published on the Medicine at Michigan website

Erika Saunders, M.D. (Residency 2006), kicked off her career with a raw desire to help people. Her passion for knowledge and treatment innovation brought her to the University of Michigan, where she focused on psychiatry and mood disorders — specifically bipolar disorder.

Drawn to the Medical School’s excellent reputation and comprehensive programs in psychiatry, Saunders credits the University of Michigan for educating her on psychopharmacology, evidence-based psychotherapy, and integrating multidimensional treatment plans for patients.

“I feel like I received a really well-rounded education in all treatment modalities and also in specialty areas in psychiatry that served me very well moving forward,” says Saunders, now the Gerald B. Shively and Robert Y. Tan Professor, and chair of psychiatry at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine.

Saunders decided to pursue mood disorders after a critical conversation with John Greden, M.D., the Rachel Upjohn Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, executive director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, and founder and chair of the National Network of Depression Centers. She says Greden encouraged her to think about a path in research and clinical work.

“I’ve been really interested in helping bridge the gap between the biological and neurobiological systems that we know are involved in mood regulation, as well as the symptom difficulties that patients present with at the clinical level in search of better treatments,” Saunders says.

Through mentorship from Melvin McInnis, M.D., director of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program, Saunders was able to assist in launching the research program’s longitudinal study cohort, giving her experience with clinical research. She also credits Gregory Dalack, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and former chief of the Mental Health Clinic at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, with providing useful advice for trainees during residency.

“Dr. Dalack would hold regular sessions with us to talk about all things psychiatry. It was extraordinarily useful to talk with someone of his caliber about the field we were getting into,” Saunders says.

In 2008, Saunders decided to pursue academic opportunities at Penn State, where she and her husband continue to work. Saunders then started a mood disorder program that included both clinical work and research. In 2014, she served as executive vice chair for the Department of Psychiatry and was appointed chair in 2015.

“My responsibility as chair is to promote and support the faculty in our department who are focusing on providing clinical care, educating trainees, and doing research in a variety of general and specialty areas within psychiatry,” Saunders says.

Although it was difficult for Saunders to leave her Michigan family, she is still very close with many former fellow residents and faculty members. She aims to emulate that close-knit environment in her current workplace.

“Medicine is a very tough field to work in; it’s very difficult physically and emotionally,” Saunders says. “It’s a high-stress environment and the supportive, family atmosphere of the programs at Michigan really provide that type of working environment that leads to a well-balanced faculty and staff, allowing people to do their best work and help patients.”

Currently, Saunders is exploring the interplay between biological systems and clinical symptoms experienced by people with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. Her team is also studying the variability of mood over time, having just completed the first phase of a clinical trial that will investigate the impact of altering pro- and anti-inflammatory fatty acids on mood variability in bipolar disorder.

“I’m using my experiences to foster the same type of collaborative environment here at Penn State: That support, flexibility, and understanding of the workforce as people is absolutely crucial and something I took away from Michigan.”