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Infancy of a Pediatric Surgeon Career

Infancy of a Pediatric Surgeon Career

Nick Skertich, MD, took time to explore other careers before landing on pediatric surgery as his goal. Now that he’s all-in, though, he doesn’t want to just learn the clinical basics. He wants to advance the field through research.

Skertich, who is in the middle of a general surgery residency at Rush University Medical Center, recently enrolled in the master's in clinical research program at the Graduate College at Rush University as he strives for a career in academic medicine. He talked about what inspired him to pursue pediatric surgery, his decision to add research skills to his repertoire, and his experience at Rush as both a resident and master’s student.

Tell us about your background.

Nick Skertich: I grew up in Western Springs, a western suburb of Chicago, and graduated from Lyons Township High School in 2006. My interest in the medical field started early, because both of my parents had jobs in health care. My dad was an orthotist and made braces for children with disabilities, and my mom is a physical therapist who works mainly with children.

But I didn’t go into medicine initially. I really liked engineering, too, because it's technical and there’s a lot of problem-solving — skills that also apply to general surgery — and I always loved my chemistry classes in high school and college, so that is what drew me toward chemical engineering. I got an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois and worked a couple of years in that industry.

I liked the chemical engineering field and the people I worked with, but I wanted more of the face-to-face interaction you get when helping people. I volunteered a lot where my parents worked, and I eventually realized I wanted to go back to medical school and do more clinically oriented things. And one of my best friend’s dad was a pediatrician, so that was a big influence on my decision too.

I went on to attend medical school at Case Western Reserve University, which is in Cleveland, and I graduated in 2016. Then I went to Rush, where I’m in the middle of a general surgery residency.

Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in clinical research at Rush?

NS: In spring 2019, I decided I wanted to add some research years to my residency. The general surgery residency takes five clinical years to complete but also has the option of adding one to two years of focus on research, and research aligns very well with my interests.

I ultimately want to go into pediatric surgery, which will require a two-year fellowship. By conducting research now, I’ll be able to focus on clinical outcomes related to pediatric surgery while also spending time in the lab doing basic science research. The master’s will provide me with a great research foundation heading into my fellowship and career.

Once I’m an attending physician, I’ll be applying for and writing grants, evaluating my own clinical outcomes and hopefully sharing that knowledge with the scientific community through publications. The master’s degree in clinical research gives me the background to achieve that. You have classes in grant writing, biostatistics and the Institutional Review Board. All of those are tools I can use as my career develops.

What are some of your current research projects?

NS: Right now I'm involved in both clinical and basic science research at Rush. On the basic science side, I'm studying neuroblastoma and its resistance to chemotherapy. Neuroblastoma is a rare tumor, but it's common in the pediatric population in a way. It's rare because there are only about 500 to 700 cases diagnosed a year. But in terms of cancers we handle in general surgery, it's one of the most common abdominal tumors.

And on the clinical side, I'm working on a project looking at how premature births affect neonatal surgery. I'm also interested in our pediatric surgery group outcomes, so we're conducting research in that area as well.

Tell us about your experience at Rush so far — both as a resident and a clinical research student.

NS: I’ve really enjoyed my time in the master’s program so far. I've interacted with the dean a lot. I think that says a lot — that the dean of the Graduate College is willing to meet with you and provide feedback. The program has been very flexible.

As a resident, the entire surgery department and pediatric surgery group has been very helpful. Dr. Torquati and Dr. Chan have made it possible for me to be in this program. Dr. Madonna has provided a lot of mentorship from a laboratory and basic science standpoint. Dr. Shah has been very helpful clinically, as have Drs. Pillai and Rossini.

I really enjoy my time with my general surgery resident family. We have a very close-knit group. No matter what, I know I can count on my co-residents to be there for me, and I'll be there for them. We spend a lot of time together both inside and outside of the hospital.

The thing that has been most fulfilling, though, is taking care of patients — seeing someone in the ICU in a critically ill state, performing surgery and helping them recover. They can be in a critical position, on death's doorstep, and then miraculously you can intervene and try and help them recover.

How do you see your career eventually unfolding as you combine your interests in pediatric surgery and research?

NS: Ten years from now, I want to be an academic pediatric surgeon, which means practicing medicine at an academic medical center but also doing research at the same time. I'm leaning more toward clinical research, so it will be very helpful to have the master’s in clinical research training that gives you skills for how to be successful in the clinical research realm.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a similar path?

NS: Consider a clinical research master’s program. It helps you navigate the research environment. It gives you more of the fine points and details that will make you more successful in research.

You also want to make sure you’re balancing responsibilities. I have the benefit of having protected time to do research. But when you're on rotation, the patient always comes first and the research is secondary. That's why it's nice to have dedicated time to do research. Being efficient and structured in your schedule and having good time management skills allows you to do more. So if you put your top priorities first and manage your time well, you can make time or do almost whatever you want to do. You just have to be focused.

Learn more about the master’s degree in clinical research at Rush.