Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PI
Director of CHARMS (Comprehensive Center of Excellence for Health and Risk in Minority Youth and Young Adults)
Center for Vulnerable Populations
Dr. Bibbins-Domingo is one of the SF BUILD PIs. She's a practicing physician, passionate about studying health disparities, and a fabulous professor.
Her passion for healing, learning, and teaching began at an early age. Born in Stuttgart, where her father met her mother while stationed in Germany, Kirsten learned to be observant and adaptable. "The thing about being an army brat is that you learn to move easily into a new setting, make friends and appreciate new things that are around you," she said. She speaks German and medical Spanish, and understands enough Yoruba to know generally what her brothers-in-law are talking about. She has lived and traveled in several countries including Panama and Nigeria and has a wide community of friends who help her stay connected to what is happening around the world.
Kirsten grew up with humble parents who encouraged her love for exploration, including supporting an experiment that filled her childhood home with fruit flies. She went to a public science tech high school in Maryland where her role model was her eighth grade science teacher, who was fabulous! "We always have these conscious or unconscious influences. I think the fact that she was a woman, very put together and excited about an area that I was excited about was a really positive science experience for me," Kirsten explained. This was in contrast to her math teacher, who tried to show that girls were not good at math by posting grades by gender. Those subtle cues, even for someone who spent a lot of time around the sciences, was hard. "I stopped doing a lot of math," she said. Part of her motivation in SF BUILD to include an examination of institutional and curricula change comes from her experience with those two teachers in the same school who had very different influences on her life. The classes that focused on inquiry had the greatest impact on her learning. "It wasn't about getting the right answer; it was about the process," she said. Kirsten didn't come from a family "where everyone is a scientist or everyone's a doctor." But she has always been interested in understanding her surroundings.
As a freshman at Princeton, she didn't fit any molds. Not only did she not know what pre-med meant, she wasn't impressed by those who were asking, so she just said no. "The stereotype of being pre-med on campus was that these were people who were really driven to get grades because going to medical school is very competitive, so the question about whether you're pre-med was, are you part of this group," she explained. Kirsten loved organic chemistry, not because she was competing to get into medical school, but because she loved the process of inquiry. She majored in molecular biology and public policy. She didn't fit the image of a scientist focused only on the exact mechanisms of biological processes, but saw that "the way you choose to ask or answer questions is often dictated by what's going on around you, or the way we fund science has to do with what is going on around you, the implications of what you find in the lab and how it then goes out into society has to do with lots of other things, and that has always been of interest to me".
She persevered in school because despite having some discouraging teachers, she also had amazing ones, including her high school teacher who had a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, but became a high school teacher because he loved teaching so much.
But college was not always easy. Being in an environment where lots of people came from privileged backgrounds was isolating. In her first week of school, a famous speaker suggested it was unfortunate that so many financial aid and minority students had been let into Princeton, leaving Kirsten with a sense of not belonging. "It was horrible," she said. "I asked myself, what am I doing here?" She didn't experience Princeton as a particularly hard place, she just didn't always feel welcomed. Her good friends and good teachers helped her see past the negative experiences; she loved Princeton academically. Her background of growing up biracial, moving around a lot, and not always fitting in, helps her adapt to environments that are sometimes hostile.
Although Kirsten was very successful in the lab, working with supportive mentor and Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, she wanted to go to medical school and be a doctor who did research, combining healing and learning. She also wanted to marry her partner and have a family. She was determined to do both research and clinical medical practice, she had to "ask and answer questions that are compatible with my life". And she does! Kirsten currently works at the nexus of medicine, research, and public policy; she often gets her research questions from her patients in clinical practice at San Francisco General Hospital. Now she spends her healing, learning, and teaching time on heart disease, trying to understand why some groups are more at risk for developing heart disease than others and how can we prevent it. And that work is driven by her desire to heal her patients. The problems Kirsten is interested in do not have easy solutions nor does she see biological health as separate from family and community health, or the environment where people live and work. "What I love about my job is that science is about community," she said, and she extends this community into her research lab. She acknowledges the challenge that there are too few minorities in this area and it can be isolating for the few who are there. To address stereotypes threat she advocates to "stay connected, the worst thing to do is to isolate yourself". With sincerity she reminds me that just talking to people you trust can help get through things like imposter syndrome, because it is so widespread.
Kirsten is energetic and light-filled: "I've got the best job in the world! It took me a long time to get there but at every stage I was making decisions based on what I like to do," she said. What she loves about her job and wants to share with aspiring scientists is that the "stereotype of the mad scientists thinking about things in isolation is the exact opposite of the way I experience science. It is completely about the collaborations". And collaborate she does! As director of UCSF's CHARM and the Center for Vulnerable Populations, Dr. Bibbins-Domingo is healing, learning and teaching a new generation of young scientists and clinicians how to heal our community.
When she is not healing the community, she's enjoying quality time traveling with her husband or cheering on her basketball-playing son.
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