Meet the American Kidney Fund's 2022 Clinical Scientist in Nephrology Program Fellowship Recipients

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The American Kidney Fund (AKF) has awarded its 2022 Clinical Scientist in Nephrology Program fellowships to two deserving researchers: Jillian Caldwell, DO, a nephrology fellow with Stanford University School of Medicine, and Janewit Wongboonsin, MD, MS, a clinical and research fellow with the Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH)-Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Renal Fellowship Program, conducting his postdoctoral research at Boston Children's Hospital (BCH). Kidney News is honored to present an interview with these awardees.

Jillian Caldwell, DO

Fellowship project: How immunologic matching in kidney transplantation can affect equitable access to organs

Tell us about yourself and something

The American Kidney Fund (AKF) has awarded its 2022 Clinical Scientist in Nephrology Program fellowships to two deserving researchers: Jillian Caldwell, DO, a nephrology fellow with Stanford University School of Medicine, and Janewit Wongboonsin, MD, MS, a clinical and research fellow with the Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH)-Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Renal Fellowship Program, conducting his postdoctoral research at Boston Children's Hospital (BCH). Kidney News is honored to present an interview with these awardees.

Jillian Caldwell, DO

Fellowship project: How immunologic matching in kidney transplantation can affect equitable access to organs

Tell us about yourself and something unique about you.

I was born and raised in San Francisco, CA, but I've lived in a few different places: Montreal during my undergraduate degree at McGill University and then Chicago for medical school at Midwestern University and for residency at the University of Illinois Chicago. I moved back to the Bay Area to start my nephrology fellowship at Stanford School of Medicine after living elsewhere for 13 years, and I’m happy to be back. I will say that living through 13 cold winters in Canada and the Midwest turned me into an avid knitter, and I’m trying to keep that hobby up in my (limited) spare time during fellowship.

What brought you to the field of nephrology?

Physiology courses in medical school contributed to my interest in nephrology. Although most of my classmates dreaded the renal physiology section, I always loved it. It seemed that if you understood the physiology of the kidney, you could make sense of what was going on with your patients. I’ve never been very good at memorizing unless I understand the logical reasoning behind something, and nephrology is perfect for that kind of learner. I gained even more respect for nephrology after seeing the close relationship between nephrologists and their patients and how life-altering both dialysis and kidney transplantation can be.

What inspired you to apply for the AKF Clinical Scientist in Nephrology fellowship?

Several other phenomenal researchers in the Division of Nephrology at Stanford had previously received the AKF award—all very talented—and spoke highly of the opportunities they received as a result. After meeting my mentor, Dr. Xingxing Cheng, and brainstorming our project on immunologic matching in kidney transplantation, I was highly motivated to apply for this grant as a way to bring this project to life. The process of writing and revising the grant solidified my motivation to pursue a career in research and built a roadmap for me to follow when I begin the award period in July, and I’m so excited to do so!

Tell us about your project for AKF and why you chose it.

My project aims to look at how immunologic matching in kidney transplantation can affect equitable access to organs. Although immunologically matched kidney transplants demonstrate better outcomes in terms of patient and kidney survival, racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive fully matched kidneys, a disparity historically attributed to the genetic makeup of the donor pool. The aim is to identify the reason for this and to test alternative ways of allocating kidneys to account for the disparities. The motivation for this project comes from my experiences with patients who have lost kidney function after losing access to immunosuppression—frequently because of systemic barriers to health care that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority patients. I am motivated to examine disparities in access to transplantation and explore strategies that promote equity and efficiency within the system.

What does receiving the AKF Clinical Scientist in Nephrology fellowship mean to you?

This award will help me achieve my goals of becoming an academic nephrologist, in addition to providing networking opportunities and the ability to present my work at national conferences. I am honored and grateful to have been chosen for the award, which will further motivate me to do the best work possible.

What is your advice for younger colleagues and your hope for their future in nephrology?

My advice is to find a project that inspires you. Frustrating clinical scenarios—for me, seeing patients with barriers to health care—are a great inspiration for research work. Believing that your project is meaningful and directly impacts your patients should help you work through the challenges and obstacles inherent to any research project.

Janewit Wongboonsin, MD, MS

Fellowship project: Defining the prevalence of genomic forms of nephrotic syndrome in adults and their clinical impact

Tell us about yourself and something unique about you.

I was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and grew up there. I attended Mahidol University's Faculty of Medicine at the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok for my medical degree. In my last year of medical school, I was one of the representatives of my school to compete for a 1-year research fellow scholarship from the Prince Mahidol Award Foundation and was one of the five selected students. I was fortunate to join Dr. Benjamin Humphreys’ lab in the renal division of BWH in Boston, MA, and then at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, for a total of 2 years, conducting kidney stem cell and fibrosis research. I am currently undertaking my postdoctoral research at BCH. One fun fact about me is that during my 5th year in medical school, I was a moderator for “Kid Vit Kids Sci,” a Thai PBS television program about science.

What brought you to the field of nephrology?

When I competed for the Prince Mahidol Award Youth Scholarship in my last year of medical school, I was to select a subspecialty in which to pursue my research. The inspiration for me to study kidney stem cells started when I learned that Thailand provided universal coverage for renal replacement therapy. I realized how high the cost of care for patients with kidney diseases is, and I wanted to help slow or reverse kidney disease progression. By joining Dr. Humphreys’ lab, it has broadened my horizon on the science and technology of nephrology. I was fascinated by both the pathophysiology and molecular mechanism of kidney diseases. After my first renal elective rotation at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where I did my residency, I appreciated the breadth and depth of kidney diseases, and the mentorship and support I received have encouraged me to choose nephrology as my career.

What inspired you to apply for the AKF Clinical Scientist in Nephrology fellowship?

During my renal fellowship interview period, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Matthew Sampson from BCH. I was excited to learn about how to use genomics and multi-omics to solve various kidney problems (“kidneyomics”), and I felt that I could thrive in an academic career under his mentorship. Furthermore, as a trainee on a visa, there are limited grant opportunities to support a career in research, and this award will allow me to follow this path. Additionally, several renal attendings in my fellowship who have received this award have been fantastic role models in research and clinical care, as I strive to be.

Tell us about your project for AKF and why you chose it.

My project will define the prevalence of genomic forms of nephrotic syndrome in adults and their clinical impact. The Mass General Brigham Biobank, which has enrolled more than 130,000 adult patients across its health care system, linking their electronic health records with genomic data generated for research, provides a powerful opportunity to pursue this study. Genomic information has shown promise in assisting with diagnosing and managing kidney diseases. However, there is more to learn to enable the translation of genomic technology to genomic medicine. I chose this project because it has become evident to me during my clinical nephrology training how genetic information could illuminate understanding patients’ conditions in various scenarios and impact their care.

What does receiving the AKF Clinical Scientist in Nephrology fellowship mean to you?

This fellowship award means that I will be able to have dedicated research time for up to 2 years. Not only can I pursue the aim of the research—to understand the impact of genetic data in patients with nephrotic syndrome—but also, this fellowship will allow me to develop expertise in clinical renal genetics, which may become another renal subspeciality. I will have the opportunity to collaborate and learn from the genomic community in Boston across multiple institutions, including BWH, MGH, BCH, and the Broad Institute. I will be able to join the ClinGen Kidney Disease Working Group expert panel to review gene-disease relationships and participate in the variant interpretation of various kidney conditions. These opportunities would be hard to achieve without the grant support from AKF.

What is your advice for younger colleagues and your hope for their future in nephrology?

One significant change that boosted my career in nephrology was joining KIDNEYcon in Little Rock, AR, in 2018. I had the opportunity to meet with prominent leaders in the field. I received a lot of good advice that opened the door to many educational resources. I think nephrology has been ahead of many specialties in democratizing education. I like to learn the exciting, new concepts in nephrology, and now these are not limited to just one institution. I benefited from my supportive nephrology program and the global education community to gradually craft my interest in renal genetics. I would encourage future trainees to try out different areas of interest. It isn't easy to prospectively guess how your career will develop, but it will always be fulfilling when you connect the dots.

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