Alumni Profile: Mary Ellen Koran, M.D., Ph.D. (’16)
by Camella Carlson (M2)
Dr. Mary Ellen Koran is a 2016 graduate of the Vanderbilt MSTP and is back at Vanderbilt as an Assistant Professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences in the Nuclear Medicine division. As part of the Vanderbilt Memory & Alzheimer’s Center, she is focused on novel positron emission tomography (PET) radiotracers and novel applications of available PET tracers to help tease apart the etiology of Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias and brain health in general.
Pathway to a Physician-Scientist
Dr. Koran studied biomedical engineering as an undergraduate at Duke University. While conducting genetics research, she realized how advantageous medical training can be in gaining clinical understanding, accessing patient data and samples, and advancing the field. She started the MSTP at Vanderbilt in 2009, initially envisioning a predominantly research-oriented career. However, that goal first started to shift after a neuroimaging lecture early in medical school by Dr. Jeff Creasy, who is still faculty here at Vandy. She was struck by the diagnostic utility as well as potential for intervention that radiology provides. Dr. Koran describes that around the same time she serendipitously received an email about a new imaging genetics laboratory, combining her prior research work in genetics with her newfound interest in radiology.
Dr. Koran completed her PhD in Human Genetics in the laboratory of Dr. Tricia Thornton-Wells, where she studied imaging genetics in Alzheimer’s Disease. She utilized quantitative measurements from radiology images as the phenotype to correlate with a patient’s genetics. Dr. Koran described how using quantitative traits like this provides more information than the binary “disease vs no disease” and enables studies to have more power and smaller sample sizes. Her specific project used quantitative measurements from PET and MRI to better understand how genes interact in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In a unique set of circumstances, she finished her PhD in 2.5 years and spent 6 months in Dr. Bennet Landman’s computational lab in a postdoctoral role, testing an imaging genetics software and further expanding her research toolbox.
Drawn toward Radiology and Nuclear Medicine
Dr. Koran loved the problem-solving nature of radiology and how the job is essential to providing patient care. Teams are often awaiting the radiology read to determine the best next steps. She completed a radiology residency at Stanford University. When she arrived there, Dr. Koran thought that she would pursue Interventional Radiology through the DR pathway, but she was fascinated by the promise of Nuclear Medicine after exposure to it during her first year of radiology. She pursued a pathway allowing her to graduate from residency as a dual-boarded diagnostic radiologist and nuclear medicine physician. Nuclear medicine imaging uses radioactive elements from the table of elements which are bound to molecules that then can image processes in the body at the molecular level. She reads studies from head-to-toe, from PET scans for dementia and cancer to cardiac stress tests to white blood cell scans for infection. She also treats patients with thyroid, neuroendocrine, and prostate cancers with the radiotherapies. She believes with the possibility of targeting nearly any molecule of interest, Nuclear Medicine has practically unlimited potential.
Current Professional Pursuits
Dr. Koran has found that Radiology is a field well-suited for her pursuits as a physician-scientist. Currently, she is splitting her time 40/60 – 40% clinically and 60% building her own and the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center’s neuro-PET program. She appreciates that while radiology is essential to patient-care, when not actively on service, her time and energy can be uninterrupted while working on research; her research interests and clinical responsibilities interplay with one another without interfering. While at Vanderbilt, she realized the potential of having robust bioinformatics resources to fully leverage the plethora of imaging data available in VUMC’s EHR. She plans to tap into these resources to explore etiologies of dementia and the effects of chemotherapy on brain function.
Advice for Future Physician-Scientists
Dr. Koran’s first advice relates to current MSTP students. She found that utilizing G-phase to further investigate specialties and seek out mentorship was important in setting her up for success in residency applications. While involved in the Student Advisory Committee as an MSTP student, Dr. Koran helped expand the Clinical Preceptorship Program to include more specialties to better match the broadening interests of MD/PhD students. She emphasized that this program should be leveraged for career guidance, letters of recommendation, exploring interests, and possibly even small clinical research projects.
She also highlighted times when it is crucial to fully flesh out the skills of that training period. For graduate school, Dr. Koran recommends taking advantage of opportunities to write grants and develop this vital skill which will pay off later. During residency, she emphasized that those years are the time to hone clinical skills, and that while research may be pursued on the periphery, the focus should be on developing clinical excellence.
Dr. Koran stressed the importance of making sure you find a supportive place to pursue the type of career you envision. Particularly, the leadership must recognize your specific goals and be willing to help facilitate them. At Vanderbilt, she found a supportive department chair, Dr. Reed Omary, who supported her protected time to pursue research, something she considers essential to fuel her early career.
Back in Nashville
Since coming back to Nashville, Dr. Koran has been enjoying the music scene and recommends that everyone see as many concerts at the Ryman as they can. She also appreciates Nashville for its variety of cuisine offerings. Outside of medicine, she spends time swimming as part of the Nashville Aquatic Club Masters’ Swim Team, mountain biking and skiing with her husband, Cody, and taking their two King Charles Spaniels on lots of walks.