October 31, 2019

Katie Wataha: Connecting the past and future

The Michigan Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) offers students the opportunity to combine an MD and PhD in any field connected to medicine. About 10-12 students are admitted each year to this competitive program.

Katie Wataha is one of a handful of MSTP students who chose to pursue a non-traditional PhD field outside of the Medical School. She has completed two years of medical school, two years of graduate seminar-based coursework and one year of preliminary examinations in the Department of History. She plans to complete her clinical rotations after defending her dissertation. Here, Katie answers eight questions about her unique path and why she wouldn’t have it any other way.

What were you looking for specifically in a MD/PhD program?

To be honest, I was not even aware that you could apply to both medical school and graduate school in History when I applied. I was so indecisive that I applied to both medical schools and graduate schools separately, and I told myself that I would just have to choose one if I was lucky enough to receive multiple admissions! A serendipitous conversation with Michigan MSTP’s fabulous director Ronald Koenig, MD, PhD was the only reason I considered applying for both of the degrees together, and I’m so fortunate that we had that talk.

Why did you choose the Michigan MSTP?

I knew after interviewing at Michigan that I would accept immediately if I was admitted. I was so impressed with the curriculum and culture at the Medical School. The Department of History was at once warm, welcoming, and academically rigorous. I could tell that the MSTP office provided their students with unparalleled financial, logistical, intellectual, and holistic support. I wasn’t wrong about any of these conjectures! 

In addition, the campus is designed to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration. I walk the 10 minutes from the medical school to the history department regularly. At Michigan, I’m also able to tap into preexisting programs that foster cross-disciplinary communities and spaces, such as the Science, Technology, and Society program on campus, which brings together researchers from history, medicine, American culture, women’s studies, anthropology, information, etc. 

In other words, although I’m pursuing a rare combination of degrees, so many faculty and graduate students at Michigan have unconventional and compelling research topics. I feel right at home here!

Why did you choose History for your PhD field?

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with history in general; it was always my favorite subject in school, all of the way through college. But after graduating, I tried my hand at laboratory science in a translational biology lab.

While I enjoyed the idea of translational medicine, I spent so much of my time in the laboratory wondering about the ways in which technologies were designed and transferred between bench and bedside, how animal models were made to represent human diseases, and who had access to certain medical technologies.

I was hooked on the social, cultural and political dimensions of science and medicine, which made it awfully difficult to run PCR protocols and focus on cell culture. It didn’t take me long to stumble on the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, which is the discipline I specialize in now.

At the same time, I didn’t want to lose sight of my desire to work one-on-one with patients, to be with them during their most vulnerable moments, and to try to heal them using biomedical knowledge. For me, the MD/PhD in History is a seamless fit. When I’m finished, I’ll be able to practice medicine and also think more deeply about how medicine has developed into what it is today. By publishing research in the field, I’ll also be well positioned to have an informed say in how we can improve medical practice and make it more inclusive moving forward.

What was the process like for finding your mentor?

Like many of my biomedical MSTP colleagues, I rotated with a few mentors before choosing one to chair my committee, although nearly all of them ended up on my dissertation committee. Instead of rotating in labs, I took reading courses with these faculty members, which consisted of reading, discussing and constructively critiquing a number of monographs and articles as well as producing a final seminar paper on the topic. 

I am especially fortunate to have an MD/PhD in History of Medicine, Joel Howell, as the co-chair of my committee. He has been an invaluable intellectual resource and support system for me throughout my entire MSTP career at Michigan. I also rely on him for key professional advice.In addition, I would have far less perspective on the non-traditional career path without the valuable mentorship of Laura Hirshbein, Professor of Psychiatry and Ph.D in the History of Medicine, who has offered me countless hours of her valuable time and many cups of coffee to discuss career planning, dissertation writing and life as a graduate student.

What are your future career goals?

Ideally, I’d love to practice medicine and conduct historical research, which involves spending a lot of time with analog and digital archives, and turning my dissertation into a book.

How do you find community as a non-traditional PhD student?

One of the absolute best parts of being an MD/PhD in a non-traditional field is that my communities are both intellectually rich and professionally diverse. I’m constantly interacting with faculty and students from a wide range of disciplines, and I love that part of my job more than anything. I’m learning how to become increasingly professionalized in multiple sectors of the academic and clinical worlds, and there’s never a dull moment.

What have been the most challenging/rewarding aspects of the program so far?

The most challenging aspects of the program also tend to be the most rewarding. C’est la vie! Certainly there are major assessment hurdles such as the Step 1 exam in medical school and the preliminary exam in graduate school, but actually I think one of the most challenging parts is learning how to switch between being a medical student and being a graduate student. I’ve found that achieving competency in each of these fields requires me to draw on vastly different skill sets, to engage with disparate disciplinary conventions, and essentially to speak two languages. This is hands-down the hardest aspect of my non-traditional MSTP career and by far the most thrilling.

What is your advice for anyone thinking about pursuing a non-traditional MD/PhD?

There’s a running joke in the MSTP that we all ended up pursuing MD/PhDs because when it came down to it, we just couldn’t choose one – it’s probably not far from the truth! There are always going to be moments when you regret that level of indecision because you do sacrifice time, (a little) sanity and some financial accrual, but when you put it in perspective it’s all worth it.

I would say that the road is long and arduous. It’s also deeply rewarding. I’m humbled to belong to so many intellectually rich communities dedicated to serving patients and – especially in the humanities – questioning the ways we know something to be true, the arrangements of our medical institutions, the stories behind our protocols and technologies, and the many cultural assumptions we subscribe to in clinical contexts.

There aren’t many careers that give you the opportunity to think through the vast scope of these things together and see them translate into practice in real time. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but I would recommend it to those who are committed to working with patients and have a strong desire to contribute to scholarly communities and bodies of literature generally considered outside the scope of ordinary medical practice.

The amount of personal growth you experience in the eight to nine years of your MSTP training is extraordinary, and I always tell prospective students to try to keep that in mind. Not only does your intellectual development change who you are, but everything else can (and does!) change too, including your hobbies, family structure, politics, self-care practices, personal goals, social networks, etc. – the list is endless. Change is a certainty, so you must view your MSTP career as a personal journey as well as a professional one.