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Topics: Clinical & Translational Research, Education & Training, Five Questions

Five Questions with Jenna McNeill

A trainee in our CT Research Academy broadens her research career in pulmonary hypertension and expands her connections to others in the field.

A pulmonary vascular disease fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Jenna McNeill, MD, is a trainee in our Clinical and Translational Research Academy, a two-year advanced training that offers a pathway to conduct independent research for early career clinicians and researchers.

How have your clinical and research interests evolved?

At Duke Medical School, I had planned originally to become an orthopedic surgeon. I grew up playing sports and was interested in injury mechanisms and the differences between genders. I did basic science orthopedic research on the effects of obesity on joints in medical school. Orthopedics was also my way of rebelling against following in the footsteps of my mother, who practices internal medicine.

But then I fell in love with internal medicine and switched to it, which brought me to MGH for my residency. I still wanted to do something procedurally oriented, which led me into the ICU. I really love the ICU, the adrenaline rush of taking care of the patients, and its multidisciplinary approach, where it’s essential to work well as a team.

“I felt compelled to do something more to help patients, particularly those with pulmonary hypertension, and wanted to return to research.”

In the ICU, I felt compelled to do something more to help patients, particularly those with pulmonary hypertension, and wanted to return to research. I found a great mentor, Jennifer Ho, MD, a cardiologist who researches obesity and its metabolic and inflammatory effects on pulmonary hypertension. In her lab, I’ve been able to investigate the inflammatory effects of obesity on the lungs and cardiac system.

What’s been most valuable to you as a trainee in C/T Research Academy?

I’ve most enjoyed the colleagues I’ve met through the program. Two of us were chosen to present last fall at the 2020 National Jewish Health’s Respiratory Disease Young Investigators’ Forum, for example. The other chosen trainee does allergy and I do pulmonary critical care, but we realized that we both work on lung function and insulin resistance. We wouldn’t have crossed paths if not for this program. I was very, very pregnant when I started the program, and even went into labor during one of the classes. Everybody checked in on me, and I’ve become friends with them. These are the kinds of connections that Harvard Catalyst has created.

Describe your project on obesity’s effect on pulmonary hypertension, how you pivoted to COVID, and what’s next?

Our lab typically conducts onsite clinical trials, which we had to put on pause. When the pandemic began, I was pulled from research and transferred to a role as an attending in the ICU, taking care of COVID patients. There, other interesting research questions emerged. Since obesity is considered a significant risk factor for COVID, we became interested in the inflammatory profiles of these patients. We wanted to see whether inflammatory markers could be contributing to why obese patients potentially have a worse outcome or greater disease severity compared to non-obese patients.

We recently published a paper that suggests that inflammation does play a role. We also noticed that men seem to get sicker and have worse outcomes than women. We have submitted another paper that looks at gender differences related to inflammatory markers found in COVID patients.

I’ll be coming on the faculty of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Division at MGH this summer. In this role, I plan to continue to conduct research with Ho. We were just awarded an American Thoracic Society grant to investigate lung function in women with HIV, who are at higher risk for developing lung disease. In addition, I will be teaching house staff, which I love.

“When the pandemic began, I was pulled from research and transferred to a role as an attending in the ICU, taking care of COVID patients.”

How personally have you navigated long hours on the COVID frontlines while caring for your family?

I’ve been treating very ill patients, so I was naturally concerned about getting my son, who was born in July 2019, and my husband sick. My friends have asked me why I didn’t just sit this one out. But I think one aspect of leadership is standing up when others sit down. ICU medicine is the job I signed up for as a doctor. I’ve always approached medicine as if the patient were my loved one and I try to do everything possible to get them home.

Two of my three brothers also went into medicine and my mom still practices at Duke. We were nervous for each other, but we all stepped up to the plate to do our job. So far, everyone has been safe.

What are you yearning to do when restrictions are lifted?

I’d like to get back to the little pleasures of life. We do a lot of outdoor activities, but we’ve never been able to take our son to the zoo or the aquarium because of COVID. I want to go to the playground and not have to worry if he goes up to hug another child. I’ve always been family-oriented, but this year has underlined what is truly important in life: family, friends, health, and happiness.

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