Thomas Vida remembers how as a young boy he realized that a microscope, its magnification wondrous, made him think of the world in a different way.
“One aspect of viewing things with a microscope is the realization that they always existed but just could not be seen,” said Vida, a new member of the UNLV School of Medicine faculty who holds a doctorate in biochemistry. “This idea made me realize further that an entire unseen new world existed and has been around much longer than we humans,” said Vida, who soon will be teaching basic sciences to students in their first two years of medical school.
Vida, a father of two daughters who says “graphic work stories” told at the dinner table by his registered nurse mother “indirectly influenced my interest in science,” isn't the only new assistant professor teaching basic science at the UNLV School of Medicine.
Dr. Kanee Lynn Lerwill, a physician who became fascinated by the power of medicine as a little girl when she accompanied her parents on frequent trips to the doctor for chronic health problems, recently moved to Nevada from Florida. There, she was an assistant professor with the Academy for Teaching and Learning Faculty at Ross University School of Medicine.
“I love watching my students grow in their studies from when they first start medical school to the point they are off to residency,” said Dr. Lerwill, the mother of two young children who finds playing the piano helps keep her mellow. “It’s exciting to be a part of my students’ journey and to help them reach their goals.”
Learning the basics
Early in their medical school careers, students take courses in basic science — the biological underpinnings of the human body, disease, and associated therapies — that include anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, and pharmacology. Basic science educators adjust their content to mesh appropriately with its clinical application.
Vida, a Detroit native who has been a visiting scientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, spent a large part of his career as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Houston Health Science Center and at the University of Houston. He thought briefly of becoming a physician but decided on a research/teaching career in science
“I find it a joy to work with, and sometimes collaborate with, students,” he said. A graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, he received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He did six years of postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.
A record collector who owns a vinyl record collection worth an estimated $25,000 (it is heavy on jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane), Vida counts some of the most intriguing days of his professional career as times when he’d lose track of time and spend 13 hours in a dark room researching with a fluorescent microscope. Research work he’s published in the Journal of Cell Biology is frequently cited. He said it’s important that scientists and physicians work together.
“Physicians and scientists are evidence-based in their viewpoints,” he said. “This is a common ground that unites them. Scientists, especially life scientists, should not stray from clinically relevant topics. Likewise, physicians need to be rooted in the basic science underneath disease states. Strong and open communication between them will accelerate discovery and advancements.”
While Vida knew he wanted to get a Ph.D in science as a junior in high school — he was drawn to the study of biochemistry “because all things living are connected through their common biochemical nature” — Lerwill decided as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley that, after an aunt died from breast cancer, she definitely wanted to obtain a medical degree. Still, the Southern California native’s varied academic interests, which ranged from the basic sciences to art history (she spent a semester in Italy studying Italian art), saw her receive a bachelor’s degree in American Studies.
“You don’t have to have a degree in science to go to medical school so I was able to put a curriculum together where I could pursue many of my interests,” said Lerwill, who took further science courses through Harvard before going on to receive both a master of public health and medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine in the Caribbean.
She put her residency — she was torn between pediatrics and psychiatry — on hold because she helped her mother deal with breast cancer. After her mother’s cancer was under control, Lerwill eventually took positions at Miami’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, where she formed the e-learning curriculum team as director of web-based curriculum and also served as an assistant professor in the department of cellular biology and pharmacology and the department of humanities, health and society. She taught lectures in the basic sciences, including pathology, biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, and neuroscience. Moving to Ross University School of Medicine in nearby Miramar, Florida, as an assistant professor, Lerwill collaborated with faculty members from basic science and clinic medicine while also working with students who could benefit from study and test-taking skills training.
“I’ve found that I really enjoy working with students, getting them ready to become fine doctors for many patients; I get much satisfaction from that,” said Lerwill. “I’ve been fortunate. I’ve never had a job I didn’t enjoy.”