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Robyn Domsic: Award for Early Career Achievement

Robyn Domsic, portraitRobyn Domsic’s reputation in the study and treatment of scleroderma is well-deserved, having published over 80 articles on the topic. The Iowa City native has established herself as a prolific and respected expert in scleroderma, which is a disease that involves hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues. As a recipient of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Career Development Award, she developed and validated a clinical prediction for all-cause mortality for patients with early diffuse cutaneous systemic sclerosis. She has garnered numerous competitive grants from the NIH and the U.S. Department of Defense as well as research support from medical foundations and pharmaceutical companies. Domsic serves as an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and she is the clinical director of the university’s scleroderma center, a position she’s held since 2015.

Rising to the challenge is what motivates Domsic in her research on scleroderma, which has the highest mortality among autoimmune diseases. While medications are available to treat its symptoms, there is no cure for the disease.

“I devoted my research to scleroderma because of its complex nature and the fact that the patient population could really benefit from good research and clinical care,” Domsic says.

Domsic’s research in orthopedic surgery, spurred by her interest in the musculoskeletal system, began during a “gap” year between her undergraduate and medical school years. Later, as a medical student in clinical rotations, she found that she was attracted to internal medicine because of the “long-term relationships I develop with patients, and the demands of the specialty. Good care requires comprehensive knowledge and evaluation. It is constantly challenging to a physician,” she says.

Rheumatology, an internal medicine subspecialty focused on autoimmune diseases and inflammatory conditions that mainly affect the body’s joints and muscles, represented the perfect marriage of her two interests. Scleroderma is unique among the rheumatic diseases in that it affects almost every organ system in the body.

Before specializing in scleroderma research, Domsic experienced a wide array of subspecialties at the UI Carver College of Medicine. She credits the required clinical rotations in her third and fourth year of medical school, an experience she says is unique from other medical schools.

Although it was challenging, Domsic says she’s grateful for the breadth of experience she received in medical school.

“I feel confident speaking with the surgeons that I consult with,” she says. “It was a great setup for someone interested in primary care, internal medicine or a specialty that focuses on multisystem care to treat conditions such as scleroderma.”

Today, Domsic has taken on a mentorship role, teaching young medical practitioners and researchers. She enjoys working with researchers, in particular, because the mentorship period can continue for months or even years.

“It’s great to see their excitement when they present a poster or get a manuscript accepted,” she says.

Domsic has benefited from her own share of mentors who have assisted her throughout her career.

For example, much of her career is spent compiling and analyzing outcome measures, which she learned from her research mentor, Charles Saltzman, MD, who served as a faculty member in the UI Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation while Domsic was a student. Domsic notes that Saltzman encouraged her to embrace research and see the bigger picture of her work.

Domsic’s current research focuses on improving clinical trial design. She hopes to design and execute a successful therapeutic intervention or preventative intervention for scleroderma.

“I'm hoping that my biggest impact is yet to be seen,” Domsic says.

By: Molly Allen