May 2, 2023
Promising Young Scientist: M.D.-Ph.D. Student Nick Popp Combines Determination, Communications, and Compassion to Remove ‘Insurmountable Roadblocks’
Nick Popp became an advocate for himself before he understood the meaning of the word. Nearly a quarter century later, he’s advocating on behalf of others in the classroom and the lab. And soon, in the clinic.
The M.D.-Ph.D. student at the University of Washington was born and raised in Smithton, Ill., (population 4,006), a town with only one nurse practitioner and one physician assistant. The nearest hospital is 12 miles away. He also was born with hemophilia A, which occurs in about 1 of every 5,000 male births, according to the U.S Centers for Disease and Prevention.
“Very early on, I had to be my own advocate to get my own care, like being 8-years-old and teaching nurses how to administer my IV medications,” said Popp, 31, who recently started year three of medical school. “So, pursuing a career as a physician-researcher focusing on rare and undiagnosed diseases – a genetic diagnostician – is my way of advocating for the many people who do not have access to the health care system that I do. I have been lucky and I want to pass that luck along.”
After speaking with Popp for a few minutes, it becomes evident that his “luck” is the product of assertive determination, unconventional communications, and an abundance of compassion.
One can expect that assertive determination to practice medicine started at a young age, though not likely “at birth,” as he claims. After high school, Popp arrived at the University of Chicago as a pre-med student in September of 2009. It was during his second year of undergraduate studies that a professor admonished him to “go do some research and get some experience in a lab.”
Popp was admitted to the Leadership Alliance program at Harvard, part of a national consortium of more than 30 colleges, universities, and private companies that endeavor to “train, mentor, and inspire a diverse group of students and academic backgrounds into competitive graduate training programs and professional research-based careers.”
He was tasked with optimizing novel assays for measuring the amount of ATP hydrolysis needed to repair damaged DNA. To say Popp’s experience over three months was transformative is an understatement.
“I became hooked on this whole new thing called ‘research’”
“They let me go wild,” he said. “I was designing my own experiments. Looking back, I am shocked at the freedom I was given. In three days, I fell in love with what I was doing. I became hooked on this whole new thing called ‘research.’”
He returned to the University of Chicago in the fall of 2011 newly inspired to explore a dual-degree M.D.-Ph.D. Popp completed his undergraduate work with three degrees – a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Biology and Chemistry. He then was awarded a research training fellowship to explore age-related macular degeneration for two years at the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.
During this time, Popp also was applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs throughout the United States. Why did he choose the UW?
“The deciding factor was Department of Genome Sciences,” he said. “The program approaches disease from a diagnostic genetic lens and motivates students to ask important questions, such as ‘How do mutations in genes lead to disease?’ I wanted to learn not just how to conduct experiments, but how to design experiments toward specific goals in clinical settings. The UW was the place.”
A professor the Department of Genome Sciences, Dr. Doug Fowler, who has served as Popp’s primary mentor, was impressed with his application. He also is one of three principal investigators who oversaw Popp’s thesis.
“The UW Medical Scientist Training Program is extremely competitive,” said Fowler, whose lab specializes in ways changes in DNA sequence relate to changes in protein function, cellular phenotypes, and disease. “Nick came to UW with an exceptional track record from his undergraduate work and with a wealth of additional research experience. In particular, the time he spent at NIH in their postbaccalaureate program set his application apart.”
Another aspect of Popp that sets him apart is his unconventional communication, especially in front of a classroom. Where most classes are taught using memorization, Popp instead prepared and led tutoring sessions for medical students using the Socratic style of instruction, where students and instructors enter into a dialogue to stimulate critical thinking.
“The students were either thrilled or aghast,” he said. “In fact, about 80 percent of them loved it. That’s how I learn best, even though I was told by my professors, ‘You have to study medicine only by memorizing.’ I responded, ‘But my brain does not work that way.’”
Abundance of Compassion
Popp’s affinity for unconventional communications is matched – or possibly exceeded – by his abundance of compassion for the LGBTQ community of which he is a member. In 2015, he and three other medical students established the LGBTQ Health Pathway Curriculum. They developed a new program of studies in the UW School of Medicine to train physicians in meeting the unique health needs of and addressing disparities for LGBTQ patients, including clinical electives for the new curriculum now taught in five states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.
“The Pathway project is designed to instruct students on how to address health and medical needs of low income and/or under-served groups, such as Hispanics, Native Americans, and others,” Popp said. “But, at the time, LGBTQ patients were not recognized. We got an initial green light from School of Medicine’s management to design the curriculum. Within two years, it was adopted.”
The most significant health disparities for LGBTQ patients, he said, relate to transgender individuals, including accessing care, receiving approval for medications, and other issues.
“Because of laws in certain states, many patients are forced to travel out-of-state to receive care,” Popp said. “It’s as discriminatory as it is tragic that the medical profession must see this as a ‘disease’ to offer care. We need more primary care physicians who know how to treat trans patients. The solutions are both medical and political, and, of course, the political is more difficult to overcome.”
If this situation seems like an overwhelming hurdle, Fowler, the genome sciences professor, seems confident Popp can – and will – help overcome it as he has previous challenges.
“I think two related characteristics have been key to Nick’s success: equanimity in the face of incredible challenges and an ability to keep digging for answers and solutions,” he said. “Nick is the kind of person who takes setbacks in stride, maintaining a positive attitude and showing up even when things aren’t working. He is also able to dig deeply into the details of a problem. Several times, this ability to focus deeply has led Nick to answers that removed seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.”