Kara Wegermann, MD
Duke University
Hillsborough, NC

What inspired you to choose hepatology?
A patient I met as a sub-intern. He was in his 20s and dying of complications of alcohol-related cirrhosis. It was a really sad case. It piqued both my clinical and research interest — why had he developed liver disease at such a young age, when others who consumed more alcohol did not (or developed it much later in life)? How could we have anticipated this and advised him as a teenager? Those questions have been the foundation for a lot of the work I’ve done in the genetic basis of chronic liver disease.

Did you have a mentor(s)? How was mentorship impactful for your career? Are you a mentor?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work under some of the best mentors in the field of hepatology. The person who really got me into hepatology was Ray Chung, who was my research mentor for a year in medical school. Ray taught me a lot about how to ask thoughtful research questions, how to have a hand in clinical and translational/basic research, and how to remain approachable and accessible despite having a lot on his plate. I was also lucky to spend a month working with Theo Heller at NIH, who still provides invaluable life advice. At Duke, my mentoring team is amazing. Andrew Muir and Cindy Moylan have been advocates for me since day one of intern year. My current T32 mentoring team (led by Steve Patierno and Anna Mae Diehl) has encouraged and supported me as I make my first foray into basic science. Mentorship has been crucial – not only in thinking about my career trajectory and how to plan for the next step, but my mentors have believed in me and encouraged me to keep chasing my research dreams even when the funding climate seems prohibitive.

What are some of the challenges facing Trainees today? How do you think some of these issues can be addressed?
Right now, the changes in health care delivery due to COVID-19 are having a big impact on trainees in gastroenterology and hepatology. From lower volumes in endoscopy and liver transplantation to incorporating telehealth into our training, we are expected to learn new skills and practice patterns at a time when we are also consolidating clinical knowledge. I’ve been amazed by the rapid adaptation in our field — I’ve benefited from new webinars and online lecture series, and some of the technology that has become part of our lives has made it easier to connect with others sharing similar interests. Ensuring that trainees also stay up to date on changes that may become permanent (for example in telehealth reimbursement) is important for us to plan our future practices.

What’s a piece of advice (professional or personal) you’ve received that has been helpful for you?
Ray Chung (about a rejected manuscript): "When you have leftovers, make casserole."

There are always times when you don’t make it into the journal you were hoping for, but you still have to recognize the importance of getting your research out there. That’s not only true because of the time and effort you put in, but also because the field (and patients) can benefit from your findings.

Anna Mae Diehl (when I said I had no idea whether my T32 project was going to work): "Well, if you knew whether it was going to work, there would be no point in doing the research, right?" I’m inspired by the physician-scientists I’ve gotten to know who are comfortable with (even welcome) uncertainty because of the opportunity it provides.

Why is your AASLD membership important to you?
Networking through AASLD has been an invaluable resource. I recently reconnected with another former Emerging Liver Scholar over a multi-center study we are both involved in; it’s always fun to see familiar names and faces on Zoom meetings. Attending The Liver Meeting® for the past 6 years has allowed me to see former mentors, meet my heroes in the field, and learn about the latest research. It has also helped me identify those with similar research interests, so that I can be on the lookout for their next exciting publication!

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
I spend time with my husband and 2-year-old daughter — we enjoy hiking, exploring the mountains and beaches in North Carolina, and seeing if we can outsmart a toddler [haven’t managed to yet].

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Dr. Wegermann is based at Duke University in Hillsborough, North Carolina.