June 01, 2012

Juanita L. Merchant, MD, PhD

Juanita L. Merchant, MD, PhD
What are you thinking about?

My current research is focused on chronic inflammation of the intestinal track, including the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines. My research team and I use two bacteria – one that infects the stomach and one that infects the colon – to induce inflammation in genetically engineered mouse models. Our objective is to understand how chronic inflammation is managed by the body and why prolonged inflammation has the effect it has on diseases of the gut.

Why is this interesting to you?

I’ve been doing research on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract since my undergraduate days. My clinical specialty is also in the GI tract. It’s been a natural progression for me to focus my research on GI issues.

What are the practical implications for health care?

This research into specific cells and gene targets that switch the immune system from doing “good” work (e.g., fighting bacteria) to “bad” work (e.g., causing cells to proliferate as in cancer) has the potential to help us better understand cancer, what causes it and how it might be prevented or cured.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

My favorite way to de-stress and relax is through yoga. I try to practice at least three times per week at a local studio. Practicing yoga helps my low back pain and keeps my body and life in balance. I have a wonderful 12-going-on-13-year old daughter and I travel a great deal. Our lives are very busy and I need yoga to help keep it all in perspective!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve received two pieces of advice over the years. First, my mother always said, “Don’t let yourself get promoted to your level of incompetence” and one of my mentors at Yale said, “Don’t learn what you don’t want to do.” I took this to mean at the time that my learning (specifically subspecialty procedures) should be strategic to avoid splitting my time among too many disparate tasks. We each need to decide what we want to do and do what it takes to become great at that, not letting ourselves get off track or unfocused on other things. I think my mother meant don’t bite off more than you can chew.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

My mother was an elementary school teacher, and when I was younger, I wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a math teacher. But freshman year calculus dissuaded me from that career path.

What’s the most thrilling or adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

Two favorite trips stand out in my mind. Many years ago, I rafted the Grand Canyon. I also bicycled through Tuscany. I recommend these outdoor adventures to everyone!

What is one destination you long to visit?

I’ve always wanted to go on an African safari. And I would definitely like to visit Argentina for a week of formal tango lessons. I’ve been studying tango locally for the past two years and really enjoy it.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Taking a nap on weekends! I also love a good hot-stone massage.