UH Med Now

Physician-Scientists thrive at JABSOM part II: Determined to make a difference in the community

Date: December 11th, 2020 in JABSOM News, Student Life, UH Manoa    Print or PDF

Physician-Scientist Brittany Sato

By Deborah Manog Dimaya, Interim Communications Director

While the National Institutes of Health has concluded that the nation is failing to attract too few young physicians into scientific exploration, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) has seen an uptick of medical students with a penchant for research.

At many medical institutions across the U.S., tuition is waived and a stipend is granted to students pursuing an MD-PhD or DO-PhD. However, this is not the case in Hawaiʻi, which makes it “even more impressive if JABSOM has medical students graduating with PhD degrees as well,” said JABSOM Associate Dean for Research Dr. Mariana Gerschenson, adding “I have a lot of respect for physician scientists – my Dad was one!”

Brittany Sato’s story, below, is the second of a four-part series featuring JABSOM medical students who are working on or have already earned their PhD. Read the first part featuring Trevor Torigoe in a previous post.

Brittany Sato: Determined to make a difference in the community

Books, case studies, anatomy labs, clinicals and numerous exams — the journey through medical school is arduous enough, but add on even more hours of research, bench work and defending a dissertation, and you’ve got a feat!

But a lofty challenge is nothing new for Brittany Sato, a third-year medical student at the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) and mother of two, who just welcomed her second child into the world earlier this year.

Sato, a Nanakuli native, graduated from Kamehameha Schools Kapalama campus. She earned her B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Evansville, Indiana, before obtaining her Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology in 2013 from the UH Mānoa.

After finishing her doctorate, Sato worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Chaminade University of Honolulu under the guidance of Dr. Claire Kendal-Wright. Her lab focused on understanding the role of the amnion in preterm premature rupture of the fetal membranes (PPROM).

“Preterm birth is higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries around the world. In Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander women have a higher rate of preterm birth than the national average, which carries health consequences that feed into the other health disparities facing these communities,” Sato said. “I hope that my research contribution will help shed some light on potential mechanisms of PPROM and preterm birth.”

Science had been a strong interest of hers since she was a senior in high school. Her Biochemistry professor encouraged her and her female classmates to pursue science beyond college.

Brittany Sato with family at commencement

Sato with her family.

It wasn’t until she was working as a post-doctoral researcher that she seriously considered applying to medical school. She viewed becoming a physician as an opportunity to witness the real-world implications of her research. She also wanted to work directly with patients and their families in their health care decisions.

“The chase for the answers to your research questions was exciting because you were the first to uncover them. The process to get the answers was always laborious – designing the experiments, troubleshooting problems, analyzing and interpreting the data – but when you actually got data that proved your questions, it made all the long hours worthwhile,” said Sato.

The highlight of her postdoctoral experience was being invited to present at an international conference for the Society of Reproductive Investigation, where she spoke about her research in Dr. Kendal-Wright’s lab.

“Dr. Kendal-Wright has been extremely supportive of my decision to pursue medicine. It is through her research that I was educated about the reproductive health disparities that our Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women face and inspired me to consider obstetrics and gynecology as a potential medical specialty,” Sato said.

Sato specifically wanted to attend medical school in Hawaiʻi so that she could serve the local communities and “what better way to do so than learning at JABSOM?” Her familial support system is also here in Hawaiʻi and has been vital to her success in balancing between school and family.

In 2018, Sato graduated from the rigorous year-long medical school preparatory bootcamp, the ʻImi Hoʻōla Post-Baccalaureate Program and earned her acceptance letter to the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). She believes her graduate school experience will strengthen her as a physician.

Sato with her husband and two keiki

Sato with her husband and two keiki.

“I may encounter patients whose care involves non-distinct diagnoses/treatments and will require more intensive investigation to help them recover. I also believe that my research experience will be beneficial to have if I decide to conduct clinical research later in my career,” Sato said.

During her free time she likes to spend time with her husband Davin and their two sons Wyatt (4 yo) and Luke (11 mon). They enjoy swimming at Keiki Cove at Turtle Bay Resorts, a place dear to Sato’s heart as it is also where her husband proposed to her. Sato also enjoys sewing and baking.

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