Dr. Jennifer Kline Morgan ’84, Culver Academies’ Graduate of the Year, didn’t imagine herself heading towards a career in medical oncology research and practice while she was in high school. But when it did come time to enter medical school, she believed she was ready thanks to the foundation laid by her Culver education.
Morgan explained she discovered the “wonders of science” at Culver. She also learned how to work with lab partners in chemistry and biology and address problems. And her humanities background provided skills that “are invaluable in any career path,” she told a group of Honors in Science students during a short Friday morning session.
Culver also helps you learn how to approach work in a “smart manner” and understand what you’re really good at, she said, which helps you ultimately find that connection that will take you down the career path “you really love.”
When she entered the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she didn’t have any idea what she wanted to do. She didn’t take many science classes in college. But working with HIV/AIDS patients in Washington, D.C., during an internship and seeing the physicians at Howard University work with them “grabbed my imagination.”
After graduating from the Howard University School of Medicine, Morgan went to to the University of Virginia for her internship and residency. A rotation in a cancer unit introduced her to her first cancer patient – who later died – and a series of mentors and faculty who inspired her to pursue her career path of oncology research and clinical work.
“There are no squirrels in oncology,” Morgan explained to group, saying that is the profound difference between it and other diseases. And cancer patients expect to have “an absolute partnership” with those people on the treatment team.
Answering questions about her field, Morgan said the Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous testing and safety protocols can take years before any new medicine is approved. But oncology patients “can’t afford to wait,” so the FDA has started fast-tracking new treatment options that is producing up to 40 new drugs every six months. The drugs include gene mutation therapies and attacking the cancer cells at the molecular level.
But keeping up the latest procedures is difficult, she explained, and you have to be “critically aware” of who is providing the information. Along with the scientific journals, she also attends seminars and conferences. Webinars are also a useful tool for connecting with the thought leaders in the field, she explained.
Being a woman in the male-dominated medical field isn’t unusual, she said, adding the profession has changed a lot over her 12 years. The long hours and finding the balance between family and work are an “expected part of the way we live” as working mothers, she said.
And it is important to remember what Culver instills in its students, she said. Be confident in what you know and call out those when something is not right.