When Dr. Jill Weatherhead first learned about tropical medicine as a college junior studying and working in South America, she knew it settled the foundation for her future career.
“Having experiences outside of my comfort zone and normal day-to-day activities has provided me with a broader perspective of the world and has allowed me to reflect back on my own community,” Weatherhead said. “Not everyone has the same experiences as you, and people are suffering in ways that you don’t understand. Learning about how other people live, the challenges and the successes, both globally and locally, has helped me evolve into the physician-scientist I am today.”
Now, as a scientist, physician and educator in the National School of Tropical Medicine, and sections of pediatric tropical medicine and adult infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, she continues to reflect on how those experiences helped shape her career today.
“It really opened my eyes to the outcomes of lack of access to healthcare,” Weatherhead said. “I relate back to that experience and use it to understand what people are experiencing here in the United Sates.”
Weatherhead’s work in other countries did not end in Ecuador. While attending medical school at Michigan State University, she expanded her global health knowledge by taking electives in tropical medicine and community outreach as well as working overseas with local community leaders and healthcare workers to learn how to build health infrastructures in resource-limited countries.
When she arrived at Baylor for her residency in pediatrics and internal medicine, she strengthened her interests further by participating in the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative (BIPAI) and working at a travel and high-altitude rescue clinic in Nepal.
“As a provider in the medical field, I feel it is my responsibility to be a voice for my patients in addition to providing great healthcare and conducting good science to improve lives and reduce illness and suffering,” Weatherhead said.
Although she always had a focus on health inequities and an interest in tropical medicine, she never engaged in research until her infectious disease fellowship at Baylor. When she had an opportunity to study immunology and parasites as part of Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, she knew she wanted to pursue a career that integrated basic and translational science research into her clinical work.
“I never thought I would be a basic science researcher,” Weatherhead said. “I had never been in a translational science lab or studied immunology prior to my fellowship. I fell in love with it and have enjoyed it ever since.”
This new awareness of research led her to obtain a master’s in science during the last two years of fellowship.
“Dr. Weatherhead was a perfect match for our group and from the start we knew we had a superstar in our hands,” said Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and co-director of Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development. “Her clinical training and interest in tropical medicine gave us the opportunity to introduce her to an exciting and impactful research field. I am privileged to be part of her mentorship team and already see the impact she has made for the lives of many underserved populations locally and abroad.”
When she later became a faculty member in pediatric tropical medicine, she entered Baylor’s Ph.D. program to study immunoparasitology, which focuses on how parasites interact with the host immune system and can lead to organ damage. Her research has led to significant findings in the fields of tropical medicine and parasitology by showing that intestinal parasites that cause ascariasis can lead to allergic disease in the lungs.
Because of her research on the relation between parasites and allergic airway disease, Weatherhead also trained under Dr. David Corry who became her mentor in immunology.
“It quickly became clear that Dr. Weatherhead is a once-in-a-lifetime trainee with exceptional intelligence and enthusiasm,” said Corry, a professor of medicine in the section of immunology, allergy and rheumatology. “Thanks to Dr. Weatherhead’s exciting and innovative line of research, our understanding of the pathogenesis of allergic diseases of all kinds will greatly accelerate.”
Despite mainly working in hospitals and clinics for most of her medical career, Weatherhead said it surprised her that she could also become a scientist.
“I thought from previous experiences that I had to choose,” Weatherhead said. “Do I want to be a physician or do I want to be a scientist in the lab? It was coming to Baylor where I saw that I did not have to choose – I could be both.”
After graduating with her Ph.D. in November, she now has set up her own lab and secured NIH funding to expand her research in immunoparasitology. She hopes to develop an integrated program of clinical and translational research for the discovery and the advancement of future drug and vaccines against intestinal parasites.
Using her voice
Although her educational career is extensive, she admits that she enjoys the challenge of learning something new.
“When I see an opportunity to learn, I never back down from that,” Weatherhead said. “I like to be pushed and to try new things even if it is outside of my comfort zone.”
“I felt like it was my duty and role as a physician-scientist to join in and be a voice for science,” Weatherhead said. “Being a voice in the community is important during the pandemic, especially when it comes to helping people stay safe.”
Along with her research, Weatherhead also treats patients with HIV and other infectious and tropical diseases through the Harris Health System at Ben Taub and outpatient clinics. She also serves as the director of the Pediatric Tropical Medicine Clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital and as the director of medical education for the National School of Tropical Medicine.
Weatherhead hopes she can show medical students and other learners that it is possible to pursue a profession that intersects both clinical and research interests and has an impact on the community.
“You don’t have to follow a straight path in your career. By taking chances and pushing yourself to try new things you can carve out a career that evolves to fit your goals,” Weatherhead said. “It is an honor to work in this environment that allows this type of discovery and evolution. Because of my time at Baylor I have a career that fits my long term goals of being a productive member in the community and making an impact both locally and globally.”