Dr. Jennifer Harris and Dr. Kate Jenkins: North Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians Award for Outstanding Medical Student in Psychiatry

By Debbie Bolles

The journey to becoming a doctor often starts in unconventional, diametrically opposing ways. Just ask Dr. Jennifer Harris and Dr. Kate Jenkins, who initially considered becoming a journalist and teacher, respectively.

Each ended up pursuing psychiatry while at UT Southwestern Medical School, merging their interests in the humanities with their scientific-minded sides. Both Dr. Harris and Dr. Jenkins were honored recently as recipients of the 2014 North Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians Award for Outstanding Medical Student in Psychiatry.

Dr. Jennifer Harris

Jennifer Harris
Dr. Jennifer Harris

A logical career choice for Dr. Jennifer Harris would have involved engineering, given her mother’s job as a computer programmer and her father’s work as an electrical engineer. Instead, she selected psychiatry, attracted by the complex interplay of human biology, environment, and experience on a person’s actions and emotions.

“As a child I was a huge bookworm. I liked to step into other people’s stories and imagine what made them make the decisions they did and where those actions might lead,” Dr. Harris said.

The psychoanalytical bent of her thought process – in a way, not far-removed from the analysis of engineering – became clearer to Dr. Harris when she worked in a sleep research laboratory at Stanford University.

“I always thought sleep was so fascinating; we spend one-third of our day doing it. This was the first thing that got me interested in medicine,” the Orange, California, native said.

Dr. Harris, who studied biology and English at Stanford, knows quite a bit about sleep these days, or the lack thereof. She is mom to two boys, Finnian, 3, and Gabriel, 6 months, with her husband, second-year UT Southwestern medical student Adam Harris.

Raising two young children while also going to medical school “takes a supportive husband and parents and a lot of careful coordination,” Dr. Harris said matter-of-factly while rocking her youngest son to sleep and simultaneously talking about her career goals.

Despite the demands of motherhood, Dr. Harris did not cut herself any slack during medical school. She served as president of both the Psychiatry and Medical Humanities Interest Groups, created a new medical student elective in bioethics, and helped coordinate the Literature & Medicine elective.

“She brings together a deep curiosity about the philosophical framework of psychiatry with a sensitive ear for the individual patient’s story,” said Dr. Adam Brenner, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, of Dr. Harris’ traits that he believes will make her an excellent psychiatrist.

With two more years of school left for her husband, Dr. Harris has accepted a four-year residency at UT Southwestern in general psychiatry. She hopes to one day practice psychotherapy in an academic setting.

Dr. Kate Jenkins

Kate Jenkins
Dr. Kate Jenkins

A recent trek through ancient civilizations and modern cities in Peru not only provided Dr. Kate Jenkins an incredibly rewarding life experience, but also a natural transition into her chosen field of medicine.

“Traveling has helped me discover aspects of myself and of understanding others that will serve me well in psychiatry,” Dr. Jenkins said. “I think meeting people from all over the world in such incredible but fleeting contexts fast-tracks connections. That willingness and ability to find understanding and connections will assist in the practice of psychiatry.”

Although Dr. Jenkins’ first instincts were to pursue teaching as a career, exposure to her mother’s work as a licensed professional counselor led Dr. Jenkins in a different direction.

“Growing up, hearing her talk about her work, her patients, medicine, and theories of mind and behavior, was absolutely fascinating,” Dr. Jenkins said. “And medical school only reinforced my sensitivity to the importance of mental health and helped me realize that it is this aspect of the patient’s well-being that I am most driven to investigate and treat.”

A Dallas native, Dr. Jenkins graduated from the School for the Talented and Gifted magnet high school in Oak Cliff and earned an English degree at Columbia University. She then joined Teach for America for two years where she taught 11th-grade English at a public high school in Los Angeles.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said of that work experience. “Even though I loved my kids deeply, I realized it was not the right career for me.”

Her desire to make a difference continued in medical school as Dr. Jenkins volunteered in the No One Dies Alone program. In this program, medical students spend time with patients nearing death who have no family or friends to be with them. Putting the needs of others first is a trait of Dr. Jenkins that other students noted, said Dr. Brenner.

 “She impressed attending physicians on every clinical clerkship with her rigorous intellect and deep compassion for patients,” Dr. Brenner said. “She found her professional calling in psychiatry as she came to appreciate the profound effect psychiatric treatment can have on a person’s life, sense of self, and well-being.”

The next stage in Dr. Jenkins’ career journey begins with a four-year residency in general psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle. After that, she hopes to pursue a fellowship.