MD/Ph.D candidate, Pathology & Molecular Medicine
Maria Georgescu in Queen's attire!
"Researching Hemophilia while Earning an MD"
By Sharday Mosurinjohn
Maria Georgescu took a pragmatic approach to choosing an extraordinary graduate education. “I think that every individual starts at a very young age to think about what they would like to be when they grow up. I certainly had a very long list as a child,” recalls Georgescu. With a wry smile, she adds: “I was interested in how stuff worked and always enjoyed treating my teddy bear for different diseases so fairly early on science and medicine got added to the list.” The way she puts it gives the impression that devoting the next seven years to a combined MD/PhD program is simply the natural choice for her interests. Indeed, the reasons she shares for wanting to be a clinician-scientist are thoughtful, yet not at all complicated. “When I started volunteering at the local hospital in high school I started realizing how much I liked interacting with patients and their families – even if it was something as small as grabbing them a blanket or just smiling and making them feel welcome to the hospital.” Since she also enjoyed the critical thinking and problem solving of university research, Georgescu jumped at the chance to join Queen’s MD/PhD program when she heard about it.
From Georgescu’s perspective, circumstances were “in favor of [her] decision to pursue a career as a clinician-scientist.” Queen's had started offering the combined MD/PhD program just the year before she was set to graduate. Furthermore, as a Biochemistry undergrad, she did her undergraduate thesis in a lab whose work excited her and which was willing to take her on as a graduate student. Georgescu is now earning her PhD through the department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine and will be working in the laboratory of Dr. David Lillicrap, who Georgescu describes as “an amazing mentor and supervisor.”
Lillicrap’s group focuses on molecular hemostasis – which refers to the mechanism by which blood clots. Georgescu’s research will be centered around factor VIII, which is an essential protein in the blood clotting process. Deficiencies or defects in FVIII result in hemophilia A, which, for instance, makes it hard to control bleeding when injury occurs. In severe cases, a person with hemophilia A might even experience spontaneous bleeds into the joints and soft tissues. Patients with this disorder receive FVIII replacement therapy, a treatment where FVIII from an outside source is given intravenously. Unfortunately, some hemophiliacs have an immune reaction to the protein, which is not endogenously produced (that is, made by their own body), and is therefore identified as foreign. These individuals develop antibodies against FVIII and the treatment fails. Georgescu’s research will be “looking at strategies to prevent the development of anti-FVIII antibodies” and also looking at “ways of reducing the antibody levels in cases where they have already developed.”
In Georgescu’s opinion, the combined MD/PhD program “opens up a lot of doors.” She intends “to take full advantage of both degrees by practicing medicine as well as doing basic scientific research,” but thinks it's a bit early to say which of the two will get more of her time. “A lot of people ask me what I want to specialize in. And the honest answer to that is I'm not sure yet!” There are a lot of specialties Georgescu looks forward to “experiencing as much as possible before making a final decision.” However, the fact that her PhD is immunology-based will offer a lot of flexibility when it comes to picking a specialization, she says, because “there is an immunology component to a lot of disease processes.”
At the start of a new program at a familiar school in a community she has come to call home, Georgescu plans to continue with many of the extracurricular activities that she was involved with throughout her undergraduate degree. She enjoys running, playing the piano and practicing yoga, but also wants to branch out. “I would also like to do more travelling,” Georgescu reflects, “and not just travelling as a tourist but travelling that would contribute to my becoming a better clinician-scientist – for example, visiting research groups abroad who have similar interests, or working with health care providers in other countries.” She has already set a foundation for this kind of work, having done a lot of volunteering throughout her university years at two of Kingston’s hospitals, St. Mary's of the Lake and Kingston General Hospital, and having sought out positions in labs with varied research interests.
It’s clear that Georgescu has found a research topic that she’s passionate about, a great lab to pursue it in, and a supervisor she can rely on to support her journey. “The MD/PhD road is a long one” Georgescu says, “and I’m walking it in a community and laboratory where I feel comfortable committing the next 7 years of my life.”