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Physician-in-Chief Cultivates Sense of Wonder Inspired by His Dad
droseyb [at] email.chop.edu (By Barbara Drosey)
Early memories of exploring his father’s lab over the weekend, looking under the microscope with him, and interacting with his infectious disease colleagues were first fascinating introductions to the world of medicine and science for Joseph St. Geme III, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I saw how he was able to have an impact on his field as a leader, and I gained an interest in leadership experiences at a young age,” Dr. St. Geme said. “Once I began my professional career, I was drawn to opportunities to play a leadership role. My dad clearly had an impact on me in that respect, and outside of medicine and pediatrics, he was just an amazing dad — an optimist, an inspiration, a problem solver, and a great cheerleader for my five siblings and me.”
As the 2020 recipient of the Joseph St. Geme Jr., Leadership Award, named in honor of his father who was a renowned and respected leader in pediatric medicine, Dr. St. Geme shared some treasured memories of his dad and then reflected on what has been most meaningful throughout his own career.
The member societies of the Federation of Pediatric Organizations established the award in his father’s memory following his death in 1986. The award serves to “remind present and future generations of pediatricians that one individual can make a difference, and all should try, when the healthcare of children is at stake.”
“I am deeply honored to receive this award," Dr. St. Geme said. "My dad inspired me to pursue a career in pediatrics. He died when I was a senior resident, but he has remained a role model for me and has had a profound influence on my career."
Dr. St. Geme continues to build upon his father’s scientific curiosity and legacy to advance child health, with decades of his own research contributions in the lab and a focus on holistic care when treating patients.
A Welcome Influence
His father’s influence loomed large in Dr. St. Geme’s formative years, in a most welcome way. The elder Dr. St. Geme was appointed as chair of a department of pediatrics at the age of 34 and assumed a number of nationally visible roles in pediatric medicine.
The younger St. Geme elected to go into medicine, and chose to specialize in pediatrics and to study infectious diseases, like his father, although they diverged a bit in terms of specific research interest: “His focus was on viruses that cause infection in children, and my focus became bacteria that cause infection in children,” Dr. St. Geme said.
After completing his residency at CHOP, Dr. St. Geme’s professional journey took him to Stanford University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Duke University Medical Center. He returned to CHOP 25 years later.
“During my time away, I always looked to CHOP as a model for clinical care, for the strong connection between clinical care and medical education, and for the strong connection between clinical care and research,” Dr. St. Geme said. “Being here again now, with the incredible collection of talented individuals at this institution, is even better than I could have imagined.”
Dr. St. Geme’s sense of wonder with his chosen path still grows deep, noting these are remarkable times for the field of pediatrics.
“The genetics and the genomics revolution has provided the medical community, and pediatric specialists in particular, with new knowledge about what causes disease and with an incredible substrate for developing new tests and new cures,” he said. “The developments in gene therapy and cell therapy are extremely exciting when we think about the potential for application to children. The evolving understanding of the relationship between the microbiome and health and disease is another area with enormous potential to change the way we deliver care.”
Dr. St. Geme’s investigative focus remains on bacterial pathogenesis, specifically gram-negative bacteria, identifying molecules and cell-to-cell interactions that enable the development of new approaches to disease prevention. He studies Haemophilus influenzae and Kingella kingae, two model mucosal pathogens that are common causes of pediatric disease.
His research group has made fundamental discoveries that have advanced the understanding of bacterial adherence, protein secretion pathways, polysaccharide synthesis pathways, virulence regulation, and evasion of innate immunity, with an impact on the development of molecular diagnostics, new vaccines, and novel antimicrobials.
Dr. St. Geme aims to be a guide, empowering up and coming investigators in his lab to develop and mature as scientists.
“I've tried to foster their development by giving them a gradually increasing levels of independence, helping them mature in terms of how they ask questions,” he said, “how they address those questions, how they interpret their results in a thoughtful, rigorous way, and how they plan their next experiments to test the hypotheses that come from the results that they've generated.”
Rewards of Mentoring
In the clinical environment, Dr. St. Geme emphasizes a love for pediatrics and the opportunity to take care of children, helping them achieve health, serving as their advocate, establishing a connection with their parents, and supporting their primary care providers. He emphasizes a holistic approach to care to trainees that encompasses the importance of the family dynamic, the critical role of other social factors, the influence of growth and nutrition, and careful consideration of pathophysiology and the differential diagnosis.
When asked to share some of the most treasured accomplishments of his career, Dr. St. Geme turns not toward personal achievements, but toward all he has helped others to accomplish.
“When I think about what's been most meaningful to me, I would say it’s been the opportunity to facilitate the training of graduate students, medical students, residents, fellows, and pediatric infectious disease specialists for a large portion of my career,” Dr. St. Geme said. “My experience as a mentor and teacher has been most satisfying to me.”
Since 2013, Dr. St. Geme has served as chair of the Department of Pediatrics and Physician-in-Chief at CHOP, with a faculty role as the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Professor of Pediatrics, professor of Microbiology, and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He does not take the privilege of working with children and their families for granted.
“We have an opportunity to promote the health, well-being, and productivity of children as they grow up to become adults and contributors to our society,” Dr. St. Geme said. “We should express gratitude to families for the opportunity and the privilege to take care of their children and address the healthcare needs of their children.”
Dr. St. Geme will accept his father’s namesake award at the 2021 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. Learn more about the award in the CHOP Press Release.