Dr. Michael Schwarzschild, MD PhD, is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General). A man of many hats, he also has various other roles, including Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Director of Molecular Neurobiology Lab, Mass General Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, and Chair of the Parkinson Study Group (PSG) Executive Committee.
A day in the life of a neurologist at Mass General
The Science Explorer asked Dr. Schwarzschild what his typical day involves and what research he undertakes. He tells us that he conducts both bench and patient research on Parkinson’s disease: “Our work focuses on how risk factor clues can lead to neuroprotective treatments. For example, we have found that higher levels of the natural metabolite urate in people with Parkinson’s are linked to better outcomes with less deterioration over years. We then showed that raising urate levels in mouse or cellular models of the disease can protect the same dopamine-producing brain cells that degenerate in people with Parkinson’s. The convergence of these lab animal and human findings led us to pursue urate-targeted therapy in clinical trials for people with the disease.”
A typical workday for Dr. Schwarzschild is atypical: “My routine ranges from lab meetings with colleagues discussing investigation of candidate drug targets in our mouse and cellular modeling of Parkinson’s, to afternoon clinics caring for patients with the disease, to teleconferences coordinating Parkinson Study Group trials of candidate therapeutics in patients across North America.”
Unlike many other research institutions, Mass General is driven primarily by their mission to improve care for their patients and their clinical perspective, including an urgency in translating molecular insights into therapies. The depth of Mass General researchers across a range of disciplines – both basic and clinical – and a highly collaborative environment are also major assets. Specifically, Parkinson’s research at Mass General benefits from a critical mass of allied researchers more broadly focused on neurodegenerative disease – including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s as well as Parkinson’s disease. Collaboration within and beyond Mass General has been a critical factor in their progress.
Influenced by family, patients, and an innate curiosity of the brain
Michael tells us that even from a young age, he had aspirations of having a career in medicine, thanks to his father’s medical background: “When I was little my dad who was a rheumatologist took me with him on house calls to visit his bedridden or homebound arthritic patients.”
It was his father’s later diagnosis of leukemia, along with his own natural curiosity, that spurred him towards the research component of his career; however, it was his patients and their families that really inspired him: “A fascination with the brain and how it functions and malfunctions led me to neurology. My patients with Parkinson’s disease and their families, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of partnering now for 25 years, inspired me to dedicate my career to finding improved treatment.”
Building a career
Dr. Schwarzschild took the less-travelled route of combined MD and PhD training, and tells us that he has since similarly endeavored to integrate his basic and clinical research around his goals for improved Parkinson’s disease therapeutics: “I would recommend combining graduate and medical training if these skills match your interests and the requirements for answering questions that excite your passions.”
As you probably know, very few career paths are smooth sailing; like all of our Job Spotlight series interviewees, we asked Dr. Schwarzschild about the challenges he faced while building his career and transitioning from academia to the medical profession: “With so many years of education across my undergrad, MD, PhD, research post-doc, neurology residency and movement disorders fellowship training, I thought my toolkit should be pretty much set when I finally got the chance to establish my own independent research program. However, in recent years I’ve needed to develop new collaborations or learn new disciplines to continue our progress toward better anti-parkinsonian treatment.”
For example, when his research led him to a candidate neuroprotective therapy with great therapeutic but no market potential, it became necessary for Michael to learn about regulatory practices to engage the FDA over a non-commercial drug development program. Such knowledge of regulatory science is not covered in standard medical and neuroscience graduate school: “But I was happy to acquire the latent skills in navigating a path toward our neurotherapeutic goal.”
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From academia to medicine
Dr. Schwarzschild uses many of the skills that he learned through academia in his current role: “Leading integrative cross-disciplinary biomedical research projects requires far more than elemental scientific and clinical skills. Communication, organizational, management, collaborative and other skills are valuable but not typically emphasized in traditional graduate and medical school curricula. People often possess varying natural aptitudes in these domains but any educational or practical opportunity you can find to cultivate them early in your career may benefit you and your research impact greatly in the long run.”
We asked Michael what his proudest career accomplishment has been so far, which again highlighted his passion for advancing therapeutics: “Developing collaborations (e.g. in my case as a neuroscientist and clinician with neuroepidemiologists, biostatisticians, clinical trialists, pharmaceutical scientists, patient advocates, project managers) that advance therapeutics far further and faster than is possible working on one’s own.”
And as for the next steps in his career? He tells us: “Pursuing our most promising molecular clues to neuroprotection in Parkinson’s through clinical testing in Parkinson’s patients, and in the near future to help people who are at increased risk of the disease in order to prevent it in the first place.” He also says he’d like to increasingly share his experience with other earlier career investigators taking their own approaches to similar goals; again showing how important collaboration and communication is to Dr. Schwarzschild in improving the lives of his patients.
Don’t forget the importance of collaboration… and fun
Dr. Michael Schwarzschild has lots of advice for anyone looking to transition from science research into medicine. First, he says, it’s important to develop collaborations with others whose skill sets complement and synergize with yours in support of your research goals. Next, stay focused on your translational goal, which will provide the clarity needed to pursue all else.
As for what he wishes someone had told him when he was first getting started with his career, he again highlights the importance of communication and collaboration: “Building collaborations across disciplines should not be a late career feature that requires an established productive independent research program. On the contrary, such collaborations can be a means to developing a successful program at the outset.”
For anyone thinking about becoming an MD, Dr. Schwarzschild says: “Keep an open mind to what you find most gratifying about medicine (patient care, basic research, therapeutics development, etc.) and try to use those evolving interests to set a rational goal and approach to your career. But then be open to unforeseen influences on that proposed path and be flexible to revise your course and possibly even your destination accordingly. It’s all an adventure.”
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Going there - not getting there - is where it’s at
He continues to highlight the importance of having fun along your chosen career path: “While pursuing a path based on your passions and strengths be sure to have fun along the way. ‘Going there not getting there is where it’s at.’”
He also encourages personalizing your approach to research and medicine, as well as to your extracurricular diversions: “In addition to making your career and field more interesting, it might actually enhance prospects for collaboration and progress.”
A few examples from Dr. Schwarzschild’s own recent and remote experiences:
With a penchant for road trip camaraderie, Michael and his colleagues will presently (Oct 18-28, 2016) conduct a field research project on prodromal Parkinson’s in a rented recreational vehicle traveling the east coast to evaluate individuals identified as being at high risk of Parkinson’s from within a collaborator’s large epidemiological cohorts.
Reflecting a fondness for pets, his team recently adopted a mascot (their dog) for national clinical trials. Charlie Sherpiddy, a brindle-coat rescue, was the motivational mascot for site coordinators and doctors across the country for the SURE-PD trial, and he is now represented in the logo for their newly recruiting phase 3 (SURE-PD3) trial.
During grad school, he sewed his wife’s wedding dress.
During college, Michael and his classmates developed a service to deliver whipped cream pies to the faces of customers’ friends as a fully costumed Pieman character.
We’d like to thank Dr. Michael Schwarzschild and Massachusetts General Hospital for taking part in our Job Spotlight series, and we look forward to seeing where the talented team takes Parkinson’s disease research next!