MD/PhD Candidate in the Medical Scientist Training Program
Samantha Schroth is an MD/PhD candidate in the Medical Scientist Training Program in the Feinberg School of Medicine. Her research examines how to better understand mechanisms by which immune cells, specifically dendritic cells, function to promote tolerance to a transplanted organ.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
After a patient receives an organ transplant, they are required to take a number of medications to suppress the immune system so their body can accept the new organ. While these medications are great in some respects, they result in a number of undesirable side effects that can actually damage the newly transplanted organ. I work specifically in the context of heart transplantation and seek to identify naturally occurring tolerogenic functions of dendritic cells that could be specifically enhanced to promote acceptance of the transplant and allow for reduction or elimination of the need to take immunosuppressant medication.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I had zero intention of going to graduate school, both growing up and as an undergraduate student. In fact, I attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for a degree in animal science with plans to become a veterinarian. I was accepted to begin vet school in the fall of 2013, but a week after college graduation, I experienced a spinal cord injury in a freak accident (a dead tree fell on me on a beautiful day while standing in the front yard of a friend’s cabin) and I became a paraplegic and full-time wheelchair user. Naturally, I spent an extended period of time becoming more familiar with medicine and the hospital than I had intended through my time in the ICU and rehabilitation. After being discharged, I began to reflect upon my life and passions and came to realize how much I valued personal connection and the positive impact I was able to have on others’ lives. All of that soul searching ultimately led me to pursue a career as a physician scientist, which brought me to Northwestern where I’m enrolled in the Medical Scientist Training Program.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Transplantation is a remarkable event where the body’s immune system is exposed to things it was never expected to have to recognize (like an organ from another person). I find it fascinating to slowly uncover ways the immune system can identify “self” from “non-self” and respond to foreign cellular material that isn’t the typical disease-causing bacteria or virus. Since transplantation is such a young field (relatively speaking), there is still SO much we don’t know or understand about how this process works on a cellular level, which is exciting and challenging in different ways. I love how every answer just leads to another question—it certainly is never boring!
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who proudly hold on to their “less accepted” identities and work to promote awareness, equity, and inclusion of those identities. For me, it took a fair amount of time to come to terms with my injury and the way it impacted my life. But now, I’m proud to identify as a disabled woman and work as an advocate to bring all too persistent disability bias to light.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I have a somewhat concerning obsession with cooking competitions on Food Network, which I oddly tend to watch while I’m working out—I think all those shows have resulted in me becoming a reasonably decent cook, and I still have a prolific sourdough starter (named Audrey after the Venus flytrap in the musical, Little Shop of Horrors) that I began early in the pandemic. Beyond that, I’m probably watering some of my (also named) plants, reading goodness knows what kind of book, or having rather one-sided conversations with my cats, Ingrid and Clarence.
What books are on your bedside table?
I just recently finished a book that was written by a friend I met as the result of our shared experience of a spinal cord injury at age 21 and interest in blogging (One Step Closer: How a life-altering accident led me to everything I almost missed by Ryan Atkins). It brought back a lot of memories from my own injury story and causes you to take pause and consider why and what it is you value in your day-to-day life. I am apparently on a nonfiction kick right now because I just started another memoir-style book, Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon, and it’s been great so far!
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Don’t be afraid to take chances and make mistakes, you’ll not only learn more but also open doors to opportunities and paths of thinking you hadn’t considered before. It’s okay to change directions (I initially thought my PhD was going to be in neuroscience); just keep asking questions, following your passion, and working hard.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I’m currently working on a project that involves analyzing a large amount of sequencing data using bioinformatic methodology, in which I don’t have much prior experience. I’ve learned so much already, and it has been surprisingly fun to wade into the coding world. Well, it’s fun when it works—but I guess that’s science!
Published: July 27, 2021
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