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Faculty Focus: Amy Calhoun, MD

Date: Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Amy Calhoun portraitWhat is your hometown? 

Hometown—this is a hard one. I’ve moved every two to five years my entire life, due to my parents’ jobs. I graduated from high school in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and my parents lived there for 16 years, so I consider LaCrosse my hometown, but I’ve actually lived in several places in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and I did my fellowship in Utah, so I lived there for three years as well.

How/when did you become interested in science and/or medicine?

You know that phase that every little kid goes through around age four or five, where they want to be a doctor (usually a pediatrician) when they grow up? Well, I just never recovered from that phase. I read medical books for fun (I particularly liked the Better Homes and Gardens Family Medical Guide by Donald Grey Cooley—it has this awesome section called “your operation” with diagrams of surgeries) starting in early grade school. 

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

I joined the University of Iowa faculty in late June 2016.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

So many! This is a hard question! Dr. Marc Williams is the person who got me interested in genetics. I did a summer research project with him when I was an undergrad and was exposed to medical genetics and dysmorphology through that project. I helped him propose a new genetic syndrome and it got me hooked. I can’t say enough about my fellowship director, Dr. John Carey, either. I did my categorical pediatrics residency here at the University of Iowa and had a great experience with all of the amazing pediatric faculty we have here. 

How do you see your faculty role impacting medicine and/or science?

I took over as medical director of the Iowa Newborn Screening Program last year and have started several projects relating to transparency and quality improvement. I’m also steadily increasing my participation in education for multiple programs, including the medical school, dental school, and multiple residency and fellowship programs. Everybody needs to know about genetics—it’s the cutting edge of medical science and impacts every area of practice.

What is the biggest change you’ve experienced in your field since you were a student?

Our understanding of genetics has absolutely EXPLODED since I was a student. When I started medical school, we were just starting to offer very early stage molecular testing for actual medical management. The bleeding edge of diagnostics in pediatric medical genetics was subtelomeric FISH—hardly anyone reading this will know what that is because no one uses it anymore—it’s been entirely surpassed by other technologies. We could hardly get a gene sequenced on a clinical basis for anyone when I started training, and we hardly knew any genes. Now I order whole exome sequencing almost weekly! Crazy! In a few years, I know we’ll be ordering whole genomes regularly. 

What one piece of advice would you give to today’s students?

Intellectual humility is the key to good medicine. Many things that were obvious to our predecessors only a few decades ago have been entirely disproven. No one knows everything. Keep your mind open—keep learning!  

In what ways are you engaged in professional activities outside the University?

I’m the medical advisor to the 4p- Support Group. This is the major international family support group for families and individuals with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome and related disorders. Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that causes birth defects and developmental delays. It’s hard to describe how amazing these individuals and families are and what energy they provide to the world. Working with and for them never feels like work. 

What are some of your outside interests?

I spent much of my youth failing to become a decent musician. However, I did manage to snag a classical musician for a spouse, so I get to enjoy his music. We have three amazing girls who also contribute to keeping me busy.  

Learn more about Amy Calhoun, MD.