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MD/PhD student seeks to improve health by understanding host-pathogen interactions

Passionate about medical education, Nick Peterson is co-chair of MD/PhD Curriculum Committee

Growing up in Minnesota with his four siblings, MD/PhD student Nick Peterson understood the important role a physician can play during key moments in their patients’ lives. When his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006, Peterson learned the importance of understanding the mechanisms of disease. It’s why he’s earning a dual degree.

“At UMass Medical School, there’s integration with the basic science and clinical practice from day one,” said Peterson, who is studying host-pathogen interactions in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology. “Training as a physician-scientist allows me to approach and view my research questions through a clinical lens and then apply the research we’re doing back to the clinic.”

Peterson has a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry from the College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. During a summer program at Southwest University in Beibei, China, he researched the host-pathogen interaction of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, inspiring a passion for infectious disease research. After graduation he worked as a junior scientist at the University of Minnesota, where his research focused on improving tuberculosis treatments.

Peterson came to UMass Medical School to study infectious diseases alongside faculty who are practicing physicians and scientists. He’s a student in the lab of Read Pukkila-Worley, MD, associate professor of medicine, a physician-scientist who uses the model C. elegans to characterize intestinal immunity.

“My research focuses on host-pathogen interactions, specifically how host cells detect when they’re infected with pathogenic bacteria. We’ve uncovered a secreted bacterial metabolite that host cells sense through a group of proteins called nuclear hormone receptors to activate protective immune responses at intestinal epithelial cells,” Peterson said.

Peterson received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health to fund his research. In April, he was the first to represent UMass Medical School at the Interurban Clinical Club, which historically includes only Boston. In June, he received one of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Mid-Thesis Research.

Peterson is also actively contributing to medical education at UMMS as a member of the MD/PhD Student Advisory Committee and the co-chair of the MD/PhD Curriculum Committee.

“I’m very passionate about medical education, in particular, clinical problem solving and how we relate disease presentation to underlying disease mechanisms. We use those underlying mechanisms to identify key questions for future research. Over the last year, I’ve worked with the MD/PhD program and fellow students to develop and implement a new curriculum focused on integrating these aspects into our training as future physician scientists,” Peterson said.

During weekly clinical case presentations, students are able to develop differential diagnoses and then delve into the mechanisms underlying a specific disease.

After he completes his MD/PhD in 2024, Peterson plans to pursue residency training in internal medicine, followed by an infectious disease fellowship. His goal is to become an independent physician-scientist.

“In my future research career I plan to leverage bacterial and host genetics to understand the mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions and innate immune activation. Ultimately, through a better understanding of how we interact with the microbial communities surrounding us, we can develop better treatments and interventions to improve health,” Peterson said.

The Student Spotlight series features students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Graduate School of Nursing and School of Medicine. For more information about UMass Medical School and how to apply, visit the Prospective Students page.

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