Meet Avery-Cohen Faculty Advisor: Dr. Vivian Weiss, M.D. Ph.D.
by Camille Wang (G3)
Dr. Vivian Weiss is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. After completing her undergraduate degree at Columbia University, she returned to her hometown of Baltimore, MD to obtain her M.D. and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. She then moved to Nashville, TN for her residency in pathology and a fellowship in cytopathology at Vanderbilt University, and she has been here ever since. Now, she runs her own translational research laboratory, studying the mechanisms underlying thyroid cancer to improve diagnostic and therapeutic options. Her continually growing lab includes Megan Tigue (G1) and Matthew Loberg (G2). I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Weiss, who shared her motivations behind her career pathway, lessons learned along the way, and the joys of being a physician-scientist.
On her career trajectory so far
“I have always liked everything so choosing a subspecialty was really hard for me. I ended up choosing pathology despite my love of seeing patients and clinical care, because I really like understanding the drivers of disease. Now, I can build a translational research lab based on the tissues of the patients that I see clinically.”
Because there are not many thyroid cancer research programs, she helped build one at Vanderbilt for the first few years of starting her independent research career here. Currently, she spends 20% of her time on clinical service, which is approximately one week per month at the hospital.
“The cool thing about pathology,” she remarked, “is that you can’t separate diagnosis from teaching. I sit at a multi-headed microscope in the hospital, and I have medical students, residents, and fellows sitting with me. We do it as a team together. And that makes the process of diagnosis safer and better for the patient.”
Challenges faced in the path of becoming a physician-scientist
In the path of garnering an academic faculty position, there certainly has been challenges along the way.
“I think most of us learn to be resilient. There are so many challenges along the way, and you learn how to be a problem solver in dealing with challenges that come before you. These challenges include those of the patients who sit before you, as well as your own personal challenges.
I had two children during my MD and PhD program, and at the time it wasn’t super common to have children during training. I didn’t have colleagues that had children, and most of my mentors had children after their training. I just had a child last year, so I have done it both ways: before and after obtaining a faculty position. Honestly, it’s hard, but rewarding, no matter what.”
Nevertheless, she finds great joy in her current career.
“I never was sure that I would be able to successfully blend research and medicine. What I didn’t realize at the time was that success can be measured in so many ways. What I enjoy most about combining medicine and research is that the patients continue to inspire me to forge ahead and making new discoveries.
It’s hard. What we do is hard. We’re busy, there’s always stress, but I think that getting to see the patients and see the gaps in their care, reminds us of the job we have left to do. It is exciting to then come back to my lab and figure out what we can do to understand that pathway, or find a better drug for this aspect of disease. And being able to continue that process is exciting,” she said when asked about her favorite part of her work.
And her least favorite part of the job? “Meetings!” she exclaimed.
When asked about three words to describe herself, she responded, “Enthusiastic, determined, resilient.” She is very excited to be a faculty advisor, and she would love to continue to meet and mentor MSTP students. She shared some wisdom for current trainees:
“We are always focused on the end point, and it’s a long road. And I know it’s a sort of cheesy thing to say, but it’s really a long journey, and I think we need to find ways to have joy each day and to enjoy the process. To continue reminding ourselves that we don’t have to be a world-famous physician-scientist when this is all finished. I think you can do great things and change so many lives just being the person that you are.”