Jennifer Puck, MD

I did not know what I wanted to pursue after college, since I liked so many different subjects. I enjoyed science courses, but there were very few women in them at Harvard and I did not feel at home. I had spent 3 years as a music major, but actually much of my time, especially junior year, involved going from Cambridge to Washington DC to protest against the Viet Nam War (first picture is on the lawn of the Washington Mall, where – as we only much later learned – Richard Nixon, fuming with rage, peered out at protesters from behind tightly drawn blinds at the White House. People and their stories interested me most. I applied to grad school in anthropology, but also to medical school, thinking that it would be best to have a skill to offer in exchange for learning about different cultures. I have always wanted to work at something that could be fun, rewarding, and different every day.

I was not aiming to go into medical research, but had the good luck to be part of the first MD class of 25 students in the Harvard-MIT program in Health Sciences and Technology. Professors from both places tried out new course material and shared their excitement about learning new things. In my clinical rotations, I most admired Infectious Diseases consultants; they were always the ones who knew so much that I couldn’t guess their specialty. Perhaps my most inspiring teacher was the brilliant pediatric infectious diseases physician and polymath Ralph Feigin, whom I learned from as a Pediatric Resident at Washington University and followed when he went to become Chief of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Though I started out to follow Feigin’s path in Pediatric Infectious Disease, I was drawn to host defenses and immunology. I had spent summers as a medical student on the Navajo Reservation, where the striking susceptibility to otitis of Navajo children led me to consider ways to study genetic susceptibility to infections. However, the new advances in gene mapping and discovery in the 1980’s and 90’s could be applied most easily to severe single gene immune deficiencies, so I started with SCID mapping and have been captivated by genetics of primary immune defects ever since.

It is wonderful to have a career that bridges clinical medicine and discovery, and I am most grateful to all the patients and families who have taught me by sharing their stories and becoming my partners in research. The community of primary immunodeficiency physicians and researchers have also become my valued collaborators and friends, engaging together to work for SCID newborn screening, better transplant outcomes, gene therapy, and new insights into how the immune system works and what happens when it breaks. I am most proud to be a member of this group.