A Research Career to Benefit Children and a Life Lived on Campus Among Undergraduates

“What makes me excited about my research is the same sort of thing that makes me excited about living on campus: because we work closely with so many fantastically smart people.”

Julie Parsonnet, MD, is a resident fellow in Robinson House. Here, she is seen walking with Todor Markov (left) and Scott Lambert, two Robinson House undergraduates.

Julie Parsonnet, MD, professor of infectious diseases and health research and policy, seems most comfortable describing herself as an “enthusiastic citizen of the university.” She explains this descriptor by saying, “I’ve lived on campus most of my time here, and I’ve had neighbors who are in history and in English and in French. I’ve always been interested in the university as an entity, the way it works and the breadth of knowledge here. There are a lot of things going on at the university that I find appealing and interesting. And I’ve always wanted to be engaged.”

Parsonnet has spent most of her time on her day job doing research, beginning in her fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital when she became interested in a recently discovered organism called Helicobacter pylori. “Like many scientists,” she says, “I started my career with a mistake. I was convinced that Helicobacter was an unimportant colonizer of the stomach, just an organism that lived in humans. So my first studies were designed to see if it really did anything. As I went further and further along, I found to my great surprise that this organism, which is present in about 50 percent of the world’s population, was actually responsible for a lot of different things: stomach cancers, gastric lymphomas and peptic ulcers, among others. We were involved in discovering links between infection with Helicobacter pylori and both cancer and lymphoma, resulting in New England Journal of Medicine publications in 1991 and 1994.”

For some researchers such results provide a line of sight to years and decades of further work elucidating mechanisms, hypothesizing therapies, grinding out hours upon hours of grant writing and manuscript preparation. Parsonnet went in a somewhat different direction. “After that,” she says, “I started to think if H. pylori is in 50 percent of the world’s population, then maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe the reason it lives in so much of the world’s population is because it provides some sort of survival advantage, particularly to children. And we found that it was associated with lower weights in children and might protect against tuberculosis and diarrheal disease. We learned that it protects against another form of cancer, esophageal adenocarcinoma.”

These findings stimulated more thought, eventually prompting a shift away from a focus on just H. pylori to “looking at the totality of microorganisms. After considering that this one organism is but one of many thousands living in the human body, we started to wonder what else is in there that influences many aspects of human health. Are there other signals that might relate infections to things that we don’t traditionally think of as infectious diseases, such as asthma and allergy and obesity? What we work on now is trying to understand how children acquire infection and what it means for their lifetime health.”

“We” is a pronoun Parsonnet uses frequently in conversation, whether she speaks of the people with whom she collaborates in and outside the lab or the students with whom she and her husband (Dean Winslow, MD, professor of general medical disciplines) live as resident fellows in Robinson House. 

“What makes me excited about my research is the same sort of thing that makes me excited about living on campus: We work closely with so many fantastically smart people. People in immunology, Scott Boyd, Mark Davis, Kari Nadeau in pediatric allergy, and the March of Dimes project with David Stevenson and Gary Shaw, and with obesity experts like Christopher Gardner and Tom Robinson. It’s just really, really fun.”

Parsonnet’s successes in grant making have given her the opportunity to help other fantastically smart people make their way in a highly competitive world whether through support from her research grants (including her NIH Director’s award) or through National Institutes of Health training grants (T32s). A T32, of which she has been principal investigator for several cycles, funds salaries and tuition for master’s degrees at Stanford for three fellows in infectious diseases each year. Upinder Singh, MD, associate professor and chief of infectious diseases, describes this as “an invaluable addition to our program. Julie’s success in renewing it, in these tough funding times, is a testament to her skills, effort and dedication.”

For the 20 percent of her life that is not spent on research, Parsonnet can quickly provide a laundry list of campus-focused activities past and present. There have been two presidential task forces, one dealing with international global health and the other with graduate education. 

Parsonnet describes the graduate education task force as “a great experience because we got to work with people from graduate education all across the campus addressing such issues as what should be the goal for graduate students here, how we increase interdisciplinary engagement across the campus, and how we support our students financially.”

And then there is teaching: “I’ve been teaching undergraduates for 15 or 20 years. I teach epidemiology and infectious diseases, and this year I started teaching a class on how to investigate an outbreak. A lot of students are fascinated by public health and by outbreaks in particular, and we engaged a lot of people from the public health community. It was an inspiring class and I was happy to find quite a number of students begin to reshape their career aspirations toward public health.”

A while back, there was a deanship: “I was the dean for medical education for five years, and I got to meet a lot of medical students as well as undergraduates applying for medical school. I love that part of the university. I just love being around smart, engaged, interested young people and seeing how they frame their careers and maybe helping them a little get where they want to go. I think that sort of explains pretty much my entire career.”

And finally, in her own summary words: “It’s all about being an educator. We do that in the dorm at night, and I do it on the faculty senate [she is vice chair]. It’s all about how we make this the best educational institution it can be and how we foster the lives of the students who are here. That’s how I’ve gotten engaged in all these things, and it’s been a wonderful experience for me.”

Julie Parsonnet is indeed a most enthusiastic citizen of the university.