Blending engineering, medicine propels Mefford into pioneering career

Heather Mefford arrived at Washington University in St. Louis like so many undergraduates — bright and curious, but also trying to find herself on a campus where she didn't know a soul. The diverse student body and academic opportunities she discovered through the School of Engineering & Applied Science not only helped her unearth her professional passions, but also opened doors to a career in science and medicine.

Heather Mefford, MD, PhD
The desire to blend the analytical rigors of engineering with the human touch of medicine propels Heather Mefford in her pioneering career as a physician-scientist.

Mefford, MD, PhD is now an associate professor of pediatrics and a geneticist at the University of Washington and an attending physician at Seattle Children's Hospital. In the clinic and in her research lab, Mefford uses cutting-edge genomic technologies to identify mutations that cause pediatric diseases. She and her colleagues have been especially successful finding causes of severe epilepsies. She's providing children and their families with answers as to why they are afflicted with seizures and other symptoms and how they can expect their diseases to develop. And she holds out hope that someday her discoveries will lead to new drugs and therapies to treat or even prevent such diseases.

Although Mefford didn't parlay her undergraduate degree into a traditional engineering career, she points to her education and experiences at Washington University as key stepping stones on her professional path.

"Analytical thinking, approaches to problem solving, discipline — people know an engineering degree is difficult and requires people who are dedicated, hard working and smart," Mefford says. "During my (graduate program) applications and medical school, my base as an engineer made other things seem easy."

Mefford has always loved math and science. So when a flyer for WashU arrived in her family's mailbox in southern Iowa during high school, it grabbed her attention. The offer of a Langsdorf Fellowship, a full-ride scholarship for incoming engineering students who demonstrate exceptional promise, sealed the deal, and she was off to St. Louis.

Classes in biomedical and chemical engineering interested Mefford. Professors Milorad Dudukovic, PhD, and Jay Turner, PhD, introduced her to the fields of environmental and industrial engineering. During a summer internship at a cornstarch plant, she enjoyed participating in experiments and applying analytical thinking. But Mefford was still searching for something with a more human touch. She made a breakthrough the following summer after Curt Thies, PhD, an adviser and former professor of chemical engineering, who was researching the use of engineering in drug delivery offered an opportunity to work at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md.

"My supervisors were physician-scientists, and I learned I could be a scientist but also work with people in health fields," Mefford says. "I realized there were different directions I could go with my chemical engineering degree, and I wanted to work more with people and have a human application to what I was doing. It was a big turning point for me. I came back researching MD/PhD programs."

After graduating in 1994, Mefford worked for a year in a genetics lab where she ran a machine that sorted cells and chromosomes. She fell in love with human genetics and made her way to the Pacific Northwest to earn her medical degree and doctorate in medical genetics at the University of Washington. She eventually joined the faculty there and now heads her own research laboratory.

"I feel I'm in the right place at the right time," Mefford says of her work identifying the causes of pediatric diseases. "It's exciting to see the field moving so quickly and making real progress. It's extremely powerful and satisfying for families to understand what they are facing and why they are going through this, and they find a great support network."

Looking back, Mefford appreciates the people and opportunities at Washington University's engineering school that propelled her personal and professional development.

"Engineering can open a lot of doors," Mefford says. "If you haven't figured out exactly what you want to do, talk to people. Meeting people in and slightly outside the field of engineering really helped me."