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Topics: Biomedical Science, Biomedical Technologies, Education & Training, Five Questions, Mentoring

Five Questions with Fiona Fennessy

Our Postgraduate Education program's course director for Understanding Biomarker Science discusses how biomarker science plays a role in the diagnosis and management of many disease states.

Headshot of Fiona Fennessy wearing a navy sleeveless shirt in front of blue/grey background.

Fiona Fennessy, MD, PhD, is faculty member of Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) radiology department, associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, and course director of our Postgraduate Education program’s Understanding Biomarker Science course.

Why is biomarker science an important area of study for clinical and translational researchers, and what do you enjoy most about your role as course director ?

Biomarkers are objective measures of a medical state that should be accurate and reproducible, and derived from many collective technologies that characterize diseases. Biomarkers are very important, because they can play a role in the diagnosis and management of many disease states. Many diseases are very heterogenous, and the hope is that a biomarker can tell you more precisely how severe a disease is and identify the best possible treatments that can be tailored to each patient.

The thing I enjoy most about working with the Postgraduate Education program is that it takes me very much out of my sphere. My day-to-day work as a radiologist consists of predominantly reading cancer cases. In my research setting, I expand my field a bit more as I work with physicists, computer scientists, pathologists, and statisticians, which I really enjoy. However, with the Harvard Catalyst program, I get to work with people from completely different clinical areas and varied research interests. I meet people from industry and people who are experts in fields I know nothing about. It is very satisfying to understand the potential connections across the spectrum of biomarkers and to realize that those who work in this field have similar goals in mind.

“The hope is that a biomarker can tell you more precisely how severe a disease is and identify the best possible treatments that can be tailored to each patient.”

The course instructors and speakers come from very diverse fields, including academia, government, and industry. What role does networking play in the course design, and how has this diversity benefited the curriculum?

Networking is a very important aspect of the course and is integrated into each section. Having people from different backgrounds (both academics and industry) and areas of interest and levels of seniority come together presents a perfect opportunity for networking. People can take the opportunity to ask relevant questions to experts in their field who can help their specific work, or they can broadly network for potential job hiring opportunities.

One very important aspect of networking is the potential to form new mentor/mentee relationships. This course offers huge potential mentorship opportunities, both within and across academia and industry. There may be people who are thinking of moving from academia to industry or vice versa, and the informal course environment allows them to reach out and test the waters before they take that plunge. I also think that those in industry can benefit from learning about emerging clinical and academic challenges in certain biomarker-related fields, because at the end of the day, it’s the patients who we are all trying to help. When all sides are negotiating and learning from each other, everyone benefits.

Your research focuses on radiology, specifically looking at prostate cancer as a biomarker and guide for treatment. What are you working on currently and what are some of your findings?

Much of my research correlates MRI with pathology to determine if MRI can be used as a biomarker to predict aggressive cancers. For example, prostate cancer is a very heterogenous type of cancer, both among patients and also manifesting within the same patient, where multiple foci of tumor may have different phenotypes in terms of aggression. It is possible that MRI, which measures specific properties of underlying tissue, can help predict the more aggressive tumors. We are also fully aware that MRIs can miss tumors. But why is that? A tumor may be aggressive, but if it’s woven through and interspersed with normal tissue, it’s actually hard to see. So, we’re studying how we can improve MRI capabilities for prostate cancer detection and characterization. Another area of my research is determining if MRI can predict those who will respond to specific therapies. In other words, can we use MRI imaging as a biomarker to inform which patients will respond best to a specific therapy?

“This course offers huge potential mentorship opportunities, both within and across academics and industry.”

You were recently appointed wellness officer for your department. During this time of COVID, which has led to changes in working routines, what are you finding is important for your residents and their overall wellbeing?

I became the wellness officer for radiology at BWH in January 2020, and then COVID hit in March. Initially, I set up a Microsoft Team’s wellness platform with multiple channels that allowed our faculty to interact with each other and as a place to post mental health resources. We also held, and continue to hold, “Art Moment” events, where we take a 30-minute art break with David Odo, director of academic and public programs at the Harvard Art Museum. More recently, we’ve been trying to set up fitness and wellness challenges. For example, yesterday I asked the entire department to take a 10-minute stretch challenge at 3:00 pm. It’s not a competition, but it means that everybody has to say, “Okay, it’s 3:00 pm in the afternoon and I’ve been sitting here working all day.” Whether working remotely at home or working in the clinic, we need to get up and move. If everybody in the department is doing it, it becomes more fun. Looking to the winter months ahead, we plan on socially distanced outside activities  and hope to get some Fitbit challenges going. One of the big things we’re missing is the social side of life, so we’ve had Friday night get-togethers with small groups on Microsoft Teams or Zoom. We’re trying to build collegiality, which I think hopefully will build some resilience in our group as we go forward.

You have many roles. You’re a researcher, associate professor, physician, you’re involved in numerous organizations, and you’re also a mom of four. How do you handle work/life balance? 

You know, I think you have to just make sure everyone is physically and mentally healthy, and then everything else just falls into place. Making sure that the kids are happy and comfortable with who they are and knowing they can turn to you with any problem — these are the things I strive to ensure.

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