Crossing the finish line: Parallels between MD/PhD and running a marathon

The road to obtaining an MD/PhD is not a sprint but a marathon.  As Charles (Chad) Coomer well knows. It’s long, grueling, requires incredible endurance, but worth every millisecond.  

Chad is completing his MD/PhD degrees at the University of Kentucky (MD) and the University of Oxford (DPhil) under the mentorship of Drs. Alex Compton (NIH/NCI) and Sergi Padilla-Parra (University of Oxford). As an undergraduate student at Western Kentucky University (WKU), Chad worked with Dr. Rodney King to identify and characterize novel bacteriophages to target Mycobacterium species. Through this work, Chad was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, solidifying his commitment to basic research and to apply the tools learned in his undergraduate laboratory to those at the HIV Dynamics and Replication Program at the NIH/NCI as a summer intern. This work ultimately led to Chad to apply to a Fulbright Scholarship at University College London (UCL) in 2014, where Chad fostered his love of virology and translational medicine by investigating mechanisms of protease inhibitor resistance under Ravi Gupta. Ultimately, his experiences at UCL and in the UK during his Fulbright year motivated him to apply for the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars program.

His work has highlighted the role of several biophysical properties of cell membranes in the context of virus entry, particularly that of HIV-1. To accomplish this, he has developed several advanced microscopy tools in the Padilla-Parra lab, particularly by multiplexing single-virus tracking and fluorescent lifetime imaging microscopy. These tools identified key metabolic influences of host cell membrane properties that facilitate HIV-1 fusion in target cells, which is now published in PLoS Pathogens (https://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article/comments?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1008359). By utilizing these tools he developed at Oxford, Chad’s research is currently devoted to understanding how a protein called IFITM3 functions to prevent virus entry. The results of these studies are currently under review, but can be read on bioRxiv (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.14.096891v1).

Chad will be defending his thesis in April 2021. Following successful completion of his PhD, Chad will return to the medical school to finish his clinical training at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. Upon his completion of his MD/PhD degrees, Chad hopes to complete his residency in internal medicine and pediatrics whist continuing to investigate the mechanism of cell-intrinsic antiviral proteins in preventing virus infection. His goal is to become an investigator and lecturer at an academic clinical center to train the next generation of clinical scientists.

In his free time, Chad runs competitively for the University of Oxford and the Montgomery County Road Runners. Currently, he is also serving on the NIH COVID19 task force by assisting the testing site at the NIH. Chad often compares completing MD/PhD training to that of running a marathon. “You have to respect the distance,” Chad says, “as each person who’s running this race will train differently to you and complete it (their training) at a different pace. Training for marathon, or as an MD/PhD does not have a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but there are definitely correlates of success: consistency, recovery, and having amazing teammates. The NIH OxCam program is a perfect regimen that definitely incorporates these three factors at the core of their training.”