Dr. Joseph Park: Eliot Goldings Award in Rheumatology

By Russell Rian

When Dr. Joseph Park was growing up in Cerritos, Calif., near Los Angeles, he enjoyed spending time with kids. It’s a sentiment that never faded.

“I’ve been interested in pediatrics since high school and college, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Dr. Park, who mentored elementary students while in college. “I’ve always been good with kids.”

He has not been idle about his passion for medicine either. After graduating from Pomona College, Dr. Park headed to the National Institutes of Health and began working in Dr. Ellen Sidransky’s laboratory. While at the NIH, he studied genetic factors related to Gaucher disease, a rare disorder in which the body fails to metabolize a fatty substance called glucocerebroside, commonly causing bone pain and organ enlargement.

Dr. Joseph Park

“We did a lot of genetics work in the lab and I developed an interest in scientific research, so after that I started in the Medical Scientist Training Program at UT Southwestern,” he said

Dr. Park joined the lab of Dr. Dennis McKearin, professor of molecular biology, studying the mechanisms of stem cell biology in fruit flies.

“Joe embodies the spirit of the physician-scientist by maintaining dispassionate analysis of research while retaining deep empathy for the ill,” said Dr. McKearin, professor of molecular biology at
UT Southwestern and scientific officer with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.

“With his doctoral research, he advanced an exciting new field in stem cell biology, and he will bring the same dedication and cleverness to his future as a clinician and laboratory experimentalist.”

Dr. Park’s skill and dedication earned him the 2010 Eliot Goldings Award in Rheumatology. The $500 award to the most outstanding medical student in rheumatology honors Dr. Eliot A. Goldings, a faculty member in the division of rheumatic diseases who died in 1988 at age 40. Dr. Goldings joined the division in 1978 and distinguished himself as a scholar, teacher and clinician.

“What I like about rheumatology is the merging of the clinical and scientific aspects of medicine,” said Dr. Park. “It’s a very hands-on field that relies on a physical diagnosis, observation and joint analysis. In addition, there’s a lot of complex molecular biology behind the diseases.”

The pathophysiology of diseases isn’t fully understood, and that makes rheumatology an exciting field, he said.

“We’re just starting to understand the immunologic mechanisms behind some of the diseases, and hopefully we’ll be able to develop more targeted therapies that will improve the quality of life for these patients.”

Dr. Park, a fan of the opera and the Los Angeles Dodgers, recently married his college sweetheart, Nancy, and is looking forward to starting his residency at UT Southwestern. He said he hopes to remain in academia long term.

“I see myself trying to integrate clinical work with a research lab. I love the patient interaction because I think seeing patients, talking to them and working in the hospital informs my research,” he said. “At the same time, I’d like to be able to take my research findings and apply them back to the bedside and find better ways to help patients.”