NAME: Jerry Brewer, M.D.
WORK: Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
MEDICAL SCHOOL: Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit
RESIDENCY: Mayo School of Graduate Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine of California
FELLOWSHIP: Mayo School of Graduate Medical Education, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine
Jerry Brewer, M.D., is a dermatologic surgeon who studies skin cancer in the setting of lymphoma, with a special focus on studying melanoma in those with suppressed immune systems. One of his current projects is investigating the rise in melanoma development and its possible associations with tanning bed use.
What do you like best about being a research physician?
There are so many questions that need to be answered. Being a research physician certainly takes more time and effort out of my day, but it’s satisfying to answer questions that actually make an impact. I think that’s what it boils down to…trying to make people’s lives better.
How does research help you in your practice?
Being a research physician develops a certain expertise. For example, I believe I have developed into one of the many experts in melanoma and other areas of oncology. By doing the research, I have been able to keep up to date on what’s new in treating certain forms of skin cancer.
Is it difficult to include both research and clinical work into your practice?
Yes, it’s a challenge. There’s certainly a lot of after-hours and weekends that go into being a productive researcher. There is money out there in the form of grants but they are very difficult to get. If a researcher is fortunate enough to get a grant, that can pay for more research time.
Is it common for physicians doing research to also have a practice?
It is at Mayo Clinic. The philosophy here is that the patient comes first. Even the top researchers are still involved in patient care at least in some form. There are, however, some physicians here that do strictly research. I think it’s fortunate that at Mayo Clinic, we can have a balance of seeing patients and doing research as well.
Did you always want to do research?
I always knew I wanted to be a surgeon. I wanted to work on cutting out cancer, and the rest just fit as my career developed. I’ve always been a curious person. The challenge for people entering medicine is that it’s hard to know what it’s going to be like until they are in that phase of their career. For me, the fit of a research physician was what my personality was looking for.
What’s the most challenging part of the field?
I hear people say if you find a job you like, then you’re one of the luckiest people alive. I truly get up every morning and feel lucky for the type of job I have. It’s an amazing opportunity for me to do the things I do and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given here at the clinic where I work. It’s very fulfilling to take care of patients, cut cancer out and also have so many resources to do research.
Was there anything about being a research physician that surprised you once you started?
Probably the ongoing learning curve. You’re never really done learning as a physician, but that holds true even more as a research physician. I’m still taking classes on how to do better research. The more you learn, the more you realize there is always something to learn. There’s always something to improve upon, something to do better.
How did you end up studying patients with melanoma or lymphoma who have had an organ transplant?
When I was fresh out of fellowship, I applied for a grant to the dermatology foundation with the help of a really key mentor in my life. I think that a lot of paths people take are significantly influenced by their mentors, and I happened to have one who was very bright and knew of some of the hot developing areas in the field of cutaneous oncology. One was skin cancer in the setting of lymphoma.
So I applied for this grant and got it, which helped fund some of my time in research for the next three years. I’ve always had an interest in melanoma. That spurred me to think of melanoma in people with immunosuppression and later to start looking at epidemiologic projects pertaining to melanoma.
Any advice on how a physician should get into research?
I would say if you love it, then just do it. There are setbacks, pain and heartache that you go through, especially if you write grants. Each time you write one, it’s a ton of effort to try to put it all together.
However, even if you’re not successful, you learn from it and the next time you have more knowledge and experience. Be OK with setbacks. Go after it if you love it. We need people answering questions and making medicine better from a research standpoint.
How would a physician go about applying for a grant?
There are a number of websites out there. If you work at an academic center, there are most likely a lot of internal grants available. The National Institutes of Health is a popular choice.
There are also societies pertaining to different specialties in medicine that have money available for grant applications. It takes a little effort, but there’s a lot out there a physician can find.