Heather Acuff, PGSS 2008

The beginnings of a STEM journey

Heather Acuff was in the PGSS class of 2008. She grew up in the Pittsburgh area. In high school, she found a love for STEM. In particular, she was drawn to the idea of wielding computer science to create new tools for kids with special needs. When she was accepted into PGSS, her love for computer science only grew stronger as she worked with her team to reprogram the Guitar Hero instrument. PGSS was not only the foundation for her love for computer scienceĀ® but gave her a framework for thinking beyond what was taught in the high school setting. In retrospect, this foundation is what set her up for a career in medical research.

PGSS to Anesthesiology Resident

Heather matriculated to MIT and began her college journey sticking to the computer science path. Her freshman year was filled with basic STEM courses and her winter break brought along a research opportunity in a lab that studied language acquisition in children with autism. Here, she leveraged her computer science background to enter the world of big data. The seedlings of how her computer science background could be used as a tool for research were planted. From there on out, her path shifted to understanding how to use her computational skills in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. Throughout her four years, she studied brain regions in individuals with autism, created 3D models of spines, and better understood depression and anxiety. She graduated with a degree in brain and cognitive science and minors in literature (poetry) and chemistry.

Post-graduation, she was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh’s MD/PhD program. Her first summer was spent with Dr. Phillips. She sought to better understand how neuroimaging (fMRI) could be used to understand the risk of bipolar disorder for children. In other words, she was understanding one facet of the relationship between brain function and structure.

Medical school in itself was a tough transition due to the large amounts of memorization – she was reminded of the importance of prioritizing self care and cultivating happiness outside of school life.

In her M3 and M4 years, she surprisingly found herself torn between two specialties: psychiatry and anesthesiology. What drew her to anesthesiology was that, unlike psychiatry, she found that the outcomes of her work were immediate, which would greatly complement the delayed gratification of her research.

It also had so many other appealing aspects: the chance to deliver patient and family-centered care and also to engage in a type of challenging and logical thinking that was not necessarily based on remote memorization. She ultimately chose anesthesiology. Her decision was followed by an existential crisis: but did she want to do psychiatry? Though she loved psychiatry, she realized that it was not what she wanted to do everyday.

Residency was described in one word: AMAZING. She was accepted at Washington University in St. Louis’s Scholars program: a six year program, where research and a clinical fellowship are incorporated into the curriculum. She found a deep interest in cardio-obstetrics, a field understanding how maternal cardiovascular health could influence fetal health. It was a very serious, high energy and high risk setting with incredibly interesting surgeries. Heather found that here, she could utilize both her anesthesiology and psychiatry background by using neuroimaging to look at patients after undergoing cardiac surgeries (delirium). She is currently finishing up residency.

Personal questions

What are your hobbies/what brings you joy?

Exploration with other people! She also loves ballroom dancing and tap dancing.

What was your favorite place to live?

Boston: it was the perfect place at her life stage. Now, she is in St. Louis, where she has learned she loves both the Midwest and the Cardinals.