Five Questions With Medical Scientist Dr. Michelle Caunca

Name: Dr. Michelle Caunca
Job: Epidemiologist and Fourth-Year Medical Student 
Country: United States
Age: 29

Dr. Michelle R. Caunca is a Ph.D. in Epidemiology and Fourth-Year Medical Student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She is a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F30) Fellow, funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and sponsored by Tatjana Rundek, MD, Ph.D. and Clinton B. Wright, MD, MS. She is also supported by the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. Her dissertation work focused on examining the relationships between regional MRI markers of brain aging and cognitive performance in a racially/ethnically diverse, urban sample using data from the Northern Manhattan Study. She received her BSc in Neurobiology with a minor in Psychology at the University of California, Irvine in 2013, graduating cum laude with Honors in Biological Sciences and Campuswide Honors. Connect with Dr. Caunca on Twitter, LinkedIn, and her website.

On her research about brain aging:

“Much of my research has focused on elucidating the relationships between cerebrovascular disease and cognitive function and decline in racially and ethnically diverse populations. I view cerebrovascular disease, and vascular disease in general, as a common pathway for many different upstream determinants of cognitive decline and dementia. These upstream determinants include comorbid health and psychosocial risk factors, but also social determinants of health.

My approach is based on a population neuroscience perspective, combining the disciplines of neuroscience with epidemiology and biostatistics to properly leverage large, epidemiologic datasets that often have high-dimensional neuroimaging data available. I have used methods that span many different disciplines, including marginal structural modeling, structural equation modeling, and machine learning. During my undergraduate career, I worked in the 90+ Study under the mentorship of Claudia H. Kawas, MD, and Maria Corrada, ScD, where I wrote my Honors thesis on amyloid PET imaging and cognitive performance in the oldest-old.

Memory loss and brain aging due to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as shown in image

On a surprising fact about working with diverse populations:

“One fact I learned was that more translation from research to the community and population needs to be done to address racial disparities in health. My recent paper examining the effects of racial segregation on cognitive function inspired me to continue this line of work in the future. As an MD/Ph.D. trainee, I am a translation-focused scientist, and I would like to see more efforts done to reduce disparities vs. describe them. There are so many other wonderful researchers out there who are working on these very issues – I would love to be part of this movement for neuroepidemiology.”

On why she decided to pursue an MD-PhD:

“I had a wonderful mentor in college (Claudia Kawas, MD) who inspired me! She was and is my role model. I had the honor of being her undergraduate trainee, working in her epidemiology research group. I was enamored with the idea that you could treat patients one-on-one, then use those experiences to inform research questions that you could attempt to answer with data science and epidemiology. She told me I should go for the MD/Ph.D., so I did, and I’m so glad. It’s a very fun and challenging path. Therefore, role models are important! I aspire to become an academic neurologist and epidemiologist studying the vascular and social determinants of cognitive aging to translate epidemiological findings into public health and clinical practice.”

On practicing self-care in graduate school:

“I had to learn how to prioritize self-care during my MD/Ph.D. training. I honestly did not make it a priority until midway through the program during a particularly difficult period of burnout. I always advise students to be introspective and know how they best care for themselves daily – they’ll figure out how to study for medical school and the techniques needed for their lab, but often we figure out self-care, too little too late!

I love to cook and bake, so the kitchen is a very peaceful place for me. I also love hanging out with my dogs and taking care of them – I am a very embarrassing dog mom! Of course, I like to binge-watch favorite TV shows and YouTube videos, but truly I think the most crucial self-care for me is the daily stuff. Some examples include: making sure I’m cooking healthy food, walking my dogs and getting outside, good skincare/haircare, and keeping in touch with family.”

On how COVID-19 will change healthcare for older adults:

“Of course, I think it’s inevitable that our medical and research systems will be changed. I’m not an expert on infectious disease, so what I’ll say about this is my opinion. Anecdotally, I am super encouraged and excited by the rapid adoption of telehealth services. I like the idea of potentially increasing the reach of care to populations that often find it difficult to travel to see their physicians or travel to university centers for research sessions. This population includes our older folks. With that said, I think that makes the availability and accessibility of the internet and technology to become an area where disparities may develop.”

I like the idea of potentially increasing the reach of care to populations that often find it difficult to travel to see their physiciansThis population includes our older folks.

Dr. Michelle R. Caunca, Ph.D., MD Candidate

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