When Jacqueline Godbe, a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), isn’t in the lab helping to develop novel delivery materials for stem cell therapies, or caring for patients during bi-weekly rotations in the Education-Centered Medical Home (ECMH), you can likely find her training at the gym, pool or Lakefront Trail — because Godbe also happens to be a champion triathlete.
At the 2017 USA Triathlon National Championships in August, Godbe placed first in her age group, completing the Olympic distance in a winning 2:10:17. Just one month later, she took the title of world champion at the 2017 ITU Age Group World Championships in Rotterdam, finishing in a time of 2:08:27.
For Godbe, devoting up to 15 hours a week to training for such races isn’t an obstacle to succeeding in her MD/PhD program. In fact, she finds it instrumental to staying on track.
“Not only is it fun and social, but exercising is also very much how I cope with stress,” Godbe said. “It’s complementary: While studying for the USMLE Step 1, I found that if I did a hard workout in the morning, it was so much easier to then sit still and study.”
Godbe, whose research mentor is Samuel Stupp, ’77 PhD, director of the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology (SQI), plans to finish her PhD next autumn, before returning for the last two years of medical school. In July, she’ll compete professionally in the 2XU New York City Triathlon.
“For me, sports are a great place to build up confidence, because there’s no real pressure,” Godbe explained. “That’s so different from medical school: If I fail, if I get a flat tire, if I cramp up and don’t finish a race — none of it means anything. But if I do succeed, that feels really great.”
Read a Q&A with Jacqueline
Why did you decide to enter the MD/PhD program at Feinberg?
I always knew I wanted to do research science; I initially came to Northwestern as an undergrad because of the Integrated Science Program, and I ended up double-majoring in chemistry. During my junior year, I realized that I had a love for medical science, but that I also find it really gratifying to interact with patients.
A lot of science is about what we can do 10 or 20 years from now — but a physician can go into an operating room and make a patient feel better within two hours. I really liked that idea of bridging the gap between being able to do something now for a patient, and doing something in the long term.
In terms of choosing Northwestern, I knew I wanted to stay in chemistry and in nanoscience, and Northwestern is really the premier institution for that. There’s no better place to go.
What is your research focus?
We’re developing materials for delivering stem cell therapies for Parkinson’s disease.
Essentially, Parkinson’s is a disease where you lose dopaminergic neurons. The idea is, could we treat it as an illness that could be cured with transplants of these neurons, in the same way we do with liver or kidney failure? There were some clinical trials in the ‘90s that showed you could do this in humans, but unfortunately, there were some very major side effects — because the brain is not a homogenous organ, and other neurons came with the dopaminergic neurons — along with ethical issues.
With the recent advances of stem cell technology, we’ve now been able to return to this idea: perhaps if we have this super-pure population of dopaminergic neurons, these therapies will work, and won’t have the major side effects.
What we hope to bring to the table is the mechanical and chemical support of these neurons. So, my project is about developing a hydrogel to help these neurons survive once we make them, and prevent them from transdifferentiating or dedifferentiating.
Stem cells are very sensitive to their mechanical environment — for example, if you take a stem cell and you put it on a concrete surface, it will develop into bone and if you put it on a gelatin-like surface, it’s more likely to turn into fat or a neuron. So if we want to maintain these cells in their neuron form, we have to come up with a material that is very conducive to that, that could be administrated along with the therapy.
The other half of my research is about developing growth factors — how do we provide the fertilizer and nutrients, essentially, that are needed to keep these neurons alive and healthy as they start to integrate in the brain?
We’re hoping that our materials will be able to decrease the amount of stem cells needed to transplant and have less variability associated with the therapy.
How did you begin competing in triathlons?
I was on Northwestern’s swim team during undergrad, and when I graduated, I thought I was finished competing at that high level. But a friend at the time was signed up for the Chicago Triathlon and wanted a training buddy, so I signed up too, just to keep busy before medical school. I had a lot of fun, and ended up winning the Athena (heavyweight women’s) division. I thought I would still keep it casual — but the racing bug never leaves you.
The second time I did the Chicago Triathlon, I placed first in my age division. It just kept building, to the point where I was winning more local races. I started training more regularly, and then competed in nationals for the first time last year. It just felt comfortable to compete again.
I don’t find that training and my MD/PhD have to fight for time. Since exercise is how I deal with stress, I’d probably be spending the same amount of time at the gym anyway; when I’m training I’m just focused on a specific goal.
What mentors have influenced your career?
Beyond Professor Stupp, the postdoc I work most closely with, Dr. Ronit Fraiman, has been very key in helping me navigate what it means to be a professional woman in science. My professor from undergrad, Dr. Emily Weiss, was also very good at that.
Dr. Sarah Rice, a former director in the MSTP program, has also been integral to my career. She also happens to be a big triathlete — so it was very interesting to hear her perspective when I talked to her about my worries going into Step 1. She told me to train for Step 1 like I would for a race: build up your endurance and make sure you have a taper and rest phase. She put it into language I could understand, which was so helpful. All of a sudden it went from something insurmountable, to something I knew I could do.
In my future career, I definitely want to have a similar mentorship role. I’m working with an undergrad in the lab now, and I really enjoy that one-on-one mentoring relationship. For the past three years, I was also a mentor with Northwestern’s PRISM program, which is a collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club for high school students who are interested in science and medicine.
What has been your favorite part of the medical school curriculum?
ECMH has been so helpful to me. Even while I’m in the PhD phase of my program, I still go about once every two weeks — it’s something I really look forward to. I’m working with Dr. Kathryn Hufmeyer at an ECMH right here on campus now, and I’m very grateful for that.
Particularly as an MD/PhD student, it has been critical in maintaining some kind of clinical continuity and maintaining the ability to talk to patients — to be a clinician rather than just someone who can crunch numbers or order prescriptions. It’s gratifying to talk to a patient and realize I can make a difference. ECMH really reminds me why I’m here.