Ilia Halatchev, like most graduates of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, feels he is “not the typical grad student.” Perhaps it is because Halatchev is among just 15 NGP alums with an MD-PhD (although three members of the 2011-2012 class are seeking the double degree), or perhaps it’s due to the fact that he has three undergraduate degrees from the University of Washington (in Neuroscience, Cell & Molecular Biology, and Biochemistry). But Halatchev is not just after a string of degrees; rather, he’s pursuing “the best of both worlds” as a physician-scientist. His endeavour now continues in the Physician-Scientist Training Program at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The program includes a residency in internal medicine, a clinical subspecialty, and several years conducting research in addition to ongoing clinical duties.
Halatchev says that OHSU was the perfect place to prepare him for the rigors of working both as physician and a scientist. “OHSU medical school training provides a great training for future physicians through teaching students broad, general medical knowledge.” This may stem from the fact that more than half the people in Oregon live in rural areas, and the state is in need of more primary-care physicians than specialists. For his graduate studies in the NGP, Halatchev worked in the lab of Roger Cone, where he investigated neuroendocrine signals that regulate energy homeostasis. But before choosing the Cone lab, Halatchev rotated through five different labs. “The NGP has an incredible breadth of great scientists working on very different aspects of neuroscience, which made it very difficult to decide on a lab.” In fact, he feels that when it comes to neuro-electrophysiology, OHSU has “some of the best scientists in the world.” Each day, he found, he could go from “one expert to the next,” just by walking down the hall. Additionally, Halatchev found the NGP to be one of the premier sites in the country for his other main area of interest: neuroendocrinology, which he ultimately decided to pursue. OHSU offered the combination of a broad clinical foundation and excellent basic-science training in neuroscience that was “exactly what I was looking for,” he said.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive for a neuroscientist to pursue training in a cardiology fellowship, Halatchev says the two fields are remarkably similar in several aspects. Both the heart and brain use an electrochemical communication that can be modulated hormonally or metabolically, and both organs are afflicted with “channel-opathies,” diseases that arise from malfunctions in the ion channels that conduct electrical signals. Halatchev was also drawn to cardiology because of his graduate work related to regulation of energy homeostasis. “Obesity, diabetes, and the metabolic syndrome play a huge role in cardiovascular health, from ischemic heart disease to cardiomyopathy to heart failure.” Now Halatchev, as part of his training program, is entering the three-year research component—much like a postdoc—in the lab of Jeff Gordon at Washington University. There he plans to investigate the contributions of the “microbiome” to metabolic health. “There are billions of bacteria, with their unique genomes and traits, in our gut, and they seem to be contributing to energy homeostasis and potentially to obesity. I would like to help elucidate the interplay between the gut bacteria and host-energy homeostasis.” Specifically, he will be investigating mechanisms by which the gut microbes affect the host’s metabolism via a variety of gut hormones, which communicate with the brain. “This goes back to the gut peptide work I did in the Cone lab, looking at how they regulate central energy homeostasis.” He credits the NGP with giving him “a great foundation of knowledge” that’s been key to his success. Ultimately, Halatchev hopes to play a dual role as scientist and physician: to better understand communications between microbes and the systems of the body, and then use that knowledge to improve human health. When asked for one piece of advice for students just starting out, he says: “Put your best foot forward, and keep moving forward.” Halatchev has certainly set an example in that regard.