Memories of Duke–By Debra A. Schwinn, MD

One of the most unique aspects of Duke University Medical Center (DUMC) is the reality that interdisciplinary clinical care and research work together. Whether it is clinical collaboration with the Heart Center, Cancer Center, Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP), or daily clinical care, DUMC faculty and practitioners think and act through interdisciplinary collaboration. While many institutions aspire to this goal, it is standard operating procedure at Duke. This has a positive impact not only on patients, but on research initiatives as well. Approximately 10 to15 percent of medical centers in the country are truly collaborative, and Duke is one of those institutions.

My fondest memories in terms of interdisciplinary work were projects at the IGSP just before I left Duke for the University of Washington in 2007. In the IGSP, anesthesiology, cardiology, surgery, pulmonary, pediatrics, the Cancer Center, genome sciences, bioengineering, and other disciplines merged with one goal: predicting patient outcome and optimal therapeutic intervention using genomic predictors. It is one thing to merge medical disciplines, but to have bioengineering and medicine working side-by-side brings very different perspectives to the same problem.

I specifically remember a Keck Futures Initiative Grant where I worked with a senior bioengineering professor. In this project, our laboratories joined forces to work toward developing a genetic test that could be used in the field in Africa to diagnose not only the presence of malaria, but also specific subtypes, and whether the DNA predicted resistance to traditional drug therapy for each individual. Dr. Nan Jokerst, J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and I worked collaboratively with our students and postdocs on this project. While the biologists worked methodically through DNA aspects of the question, with the traditional slow, exacting precision required of molecular scientists, the engineering students implemented diagnostic test methods before beginning to understand DNA methods.

This crazy cross-linking of approaches gave all participants wonderful new insights into cultural/scientific biases and limitations while working together toward breaking through barriers of the project. This situation embodies one of Duke’s great, wonderful strengths. It is one that I recall with fondness.