Alumni Profile: Kevin D. Niswender, M.D., Ph.D. (’95)
by Thao Le (G1)
Associate Professor of Medicine
Associate Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
M.D., Medicine, Vanderbilt University
Ph.D., Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, Vanderbilt University
B.S., Colorado College
Dr. Kevin Niswender earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Colorado College in Colorado Springs and his MD and PhD degrees from the Vanderbilt MSTP. He received residency training at the University of Washington in Seattle and stayed on for clinical and research fellowships in metabolism, endocrinology and nutrition. In 2004, Dr. Niswender returned to Nashville as assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and as staff physician for the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System (Nashville Veterans Affairs Medical Center). He is currently an Associate Professor within the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University. As a physician-scientist, Dr. Niswender splits his time between attending endocrinology clinics and running a research lab. His laboratory focuses on the neuroendocrine regulation of feeding and pathogenesis of obesity and makes extensive use of the full translational spectrum of model systems ranging from cell culture and animal models to human investigation.
How did your research and clinical interests develop?
My undergraduate research was on type 1 diabetes. I was in an immunology lab and performed bone marrow transplants in rats. But I have always been interested in physiology and studying metabolism in a whole animal. Coming to medical school, I knew I wanted to do endocrinology. As an endocrinologist, I take care of many patients with diabetes, obesity, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension, and the pathophysiology of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome is what I am interested in studying in the lab.
What are the best aspects of the Vanderbilt MSTP?
The camaraderie among the students in my class. After the first couple of years, you are breaking away from your cohort and go off into lab and learn independently. It was a big change but we always had a group of people and a lot of camaraderie among us. It was also a great program. We had a really terrific group of leaders.
How did you navigate choosing your Ph.D. lab?
I very much took the advice of my MSTP Director, who was Dr. Daryl Granner at the time. He knew what my research interest was and knew the faculty who would be a good fit for me and who would have time at the bench to train me. So, I ended up joining Dr. Mark Magnuson‘s lab, doing a lot of molecular biology works and developing an in vivo system to study whole body metabolism in a conscious mouse, which preceded the clamp techniques used at the Vanderbilt Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center today.
How did you choose your residency program? Was it difficult for you to select one that took into account your interest in doing research?
No, that wasn’t hard at all. For residency, I basically interviewed at programs where I had already identified a post-doctoral mentor that I might want to work with. I did the ABIM research fast track. To be honest, when I was looking for residency programs, I had already identified somebody I wanted to work with in Seattle – Dr. Michael Schwartz. He had been one of the original thinkers in terms of thinking about the neurohormonal regulation of appetite and body weight. When I was an MSTP student at Vanderbilt, Dr. Jeff Friedman came to Vanderbilt and gave a talk on leptin. I remembered meeting with him one on one and learned about his work, and that I really got me interested in the neural control of metabolism. So, that’s how I applied to the University of Washington, did my internal medicine residency and my endocrinology fellowship there, so that I could just stay on there to do my research fellowship.
How did you come to choose the 80:20 time split?
It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t full of difficult decisions to make. For me, it happened organically. For somebody who is interested in science, who went on to be a physician and obtained a PhD, being a physician scientist splitting time 80:20 between research and clinical work seemed to be one of the few options on the table. Lots of our predecessors have thought a lot about this and the 80:20 just seems to be the magic split where it works for most people. As a faculty at any major academic institution, your job options are being a physician scientist, being a clinician educator, which is kind of the opposite – 80% clinical 20% academic activities, or being an academic clinician, which is 100% clinical work.
What are some of the challenges you encountered in your training?
Transitioning back to medical school after my PhD was challenging to say the least [laugh]. My first two years of med school were spent sitting in Light Hall 208 and the anatomy lab, and then we went on to our PhD training – we didn’t have continuity clinic or much contact with the medical school during my PhD per se, so I did not have any clinical contact for a long time. The PhD phase itself was also tough. That was a long training, working 6-7 days a week with a lot of pressure to get stuff done, but we had a lot of support throughout. Those same challenges also persisted through residency and fellowship. It was challenging to be away from research for a long time. As an MSTP, you might want to get to the lab and do research. But the nice thing is, your residency and clinical training, especially when moving between institutions, can be a good time for you to meet people, get a sense of the new institution, learn what’s going on, and interact with a few potential mentors you might want to work with for your post-doc. You are also very busy clinical. And sometimes moving away from something that you have been intensely working on and putting it aside for some time can help you clarify your thinking. Your clinical work during residency can also inform and cement your research goals.