Career Journeys: Christine H. Chung, MD, Academic Medicine and Clinical Investigator

Jan 30, 2015

Christine H. Chung, MD, has held the positions of Associate Professor of Oncology and Director of the Head and Neck Cancer Therapeutics Program at Johns Hopkins University for 4.5 years. As a physician-scientist, she leads the institution’s translational and clinical research efforts in the area of head and neck cancers.

How did you choose your current career path?
I have always loved learning something new and creating knowledge through research. I frequently ask whether we can do something better in all aspects of patient care and research. Academic medicine is a perfect working environment for me to do things that I love.

In the beginning of my career, I wasgoing to focus on breast cancer research because, as a female physician, I wanted to work with women’s health. I also wanted to stay at the Universityof North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, where I did my residency/fellowship, because UNC is an outstanding institution. Personally, I had two little children and did not want to move at the time. There was no faculty position opening at Chapel Hill for breast cancer, but there was an opening for head and neck cancer. I was skeptical in the beginning but decided to give it a try. It was rewarding to learn new things and I enjoyed the process of getting to know this understudied cancer type. Pursuing this specialty allowed me to continue my training and later become a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, where I focused on head and neck cancer both at the University and at the Veterans Affairs clinic. In the end, it was a great career choice and it really paid off to be open-minded and flexible.

Is there a personal experience that shaped your professional journey and led to where you are today?
I read “Simone’s Maxims.” If you have not read it and you are considering a career in academic medicine, this is a must-read (Simone, JV. Clin Can Res. 1999;5:2281-5). I am going to quote the last paragraph of Simone’s Maxims because I don’t know any better way to express how I feel about academic medicine:

Academic Medicine Is a Noble Calling. Despite the problems, it can be the most fulfilling and rewarding of professions, if taken with a sharp eye for reality, a dash of iconoclasm, and a ready sense of humor. These jobs are difficult and certainly not rewarding 24 hours a day; sometimes we are lucky to get 24 hours a month. Bu twe in academic medicine are blessed in many ways compared with those in most jobs. We have the privilege of working in a profession that helps the sick and dying while we are engaged in intellectual inquiry. Our profession is still highly respected by society, and we are paid quite well for doing something most of us love to do. So despite all the travails of human frailty that we must deal with every day, we should count our blessings. I am grateful that fate and early training led me into academic medicine and would do it again in a New York minute.”

Describe your typical work day.
On my clinic days, I see patients from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and continue the day completing the documentation. I really do my best to complete all documentation and clinical follow-ups on the same day in order to prevent my clinical work from spilling over to my research days.

On my research days, I generally spend time supervising our research team. I discuss the progress in our scientific and clinical research with my laboratory assistants, post-doctoral fellows, research nurses, and regulatory data managers. During leadership and committee meetings, we discuss the direction of the program and strategy to achieve our goals. At Hopkins, there are always many opportunities to learn about new advances in cancer research through numerous educational lectures/conferences such as Grand Rounds, Translational Research Conferences, etc. I do my best to attend these lectures to stay up to date. The rest of the day is spent on writing all sorts ofthings: research manuscripts, grants, protocols, letters of intent, Institutional Review Board applications, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee applications, letters for patients’ disability/insurance claims, etc.

What is your favorite aspect of your job? What aspect is the most challenging?
I like putting my research data together in a manuscript and being able to disseminate the knowledge through a publication. It gives me a sense of accomplishment that I have contributed something, whether big or small, to medicine.

I find the increasing requirements for clinical and research regulatory documentation to be very challenging. I understand the need and I comply, but it is not a favorite aspect of my job.

What do you wish you had known before you chose your career path?
I wish I had more faith in myself and in the system that things will work out. I used to feel very anxious about getting a faculty position, funding my laboratory, opening clinical trials, publishing manuscripts, giving lectures/presentations, etc. I still do, to a certain extent, but I don’t stay awake at night worrying anymore, because too much anxiety is not healthy. I could have been less anxious about my career development and enjoyed the process more. If you work hard and stick with what you believe in, it all works out in the end.

Why would you recommend a career as an academic researcher to someone starting out in oncology?
Academic medicine is intellectually stimulating; we see the most complicated cases and learn about the latest advancements in clinical science. It is sometimes a challenge to stay on top of the huge amount of new knowledge, but it is certainly interesting. It is worthwhile to face the challenges and try to improve the way we take care of our patients.

What kind of person thrives in this professional environment?
You have to be comfortable with trying something new, be focused, like to write (I cannot emphasize that enough: you must like writing!), and enjoy being surrounded by really smart people.

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