Dr. Kate Steger: North Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians Award

Should she become a ballerina or a scientist? That was the burning question in 7-year-old Kate Steger's mind when she was asked to draw a picture of what she wanted to be when she grew up. The second-grader in suburban New York City, recently returned from England with a "funny accent and funny European shoes," opted for the latter.

Today, Dr. Steger's childhood depiction of a lanky girl in a lab coat, complete with glasses and hair in a bun, has become reality. As for ballet, she gave that up at 15.

Although the recipient of this year's North Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians Award for Outstanding Medical Student in Psychiatry, which provides $500 in cash, Dr. Steger didn't expect to become a psychiatrist. A student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, she was initially drawn to genetics, having worked in labs at Stanford University School of Medicine during and after college, and more recently at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Kate Steger

But a back injury during her junior year at Stanford while on the women's crew team and a third-year clerkship in Parkland Memorial Hospital's psychiatric emergency room catapulted her into a different scientific arena -- an arena that she says we "understand the least: why people think and act the way they do."

The back injury gave Dr. Steger a brief insight into what it's like to have chronic pain, often associated with depression, and "to not be able to deal with the world."

"I couldn't go to parties because I couldn't stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time," she said. "So I never went anywhere. I didn't see my friends. Everything stopped.

"Your mind really shuts off, thinking you're never going to get better. It struck me how powerful that perspective is."

During most of medical school, Dr. Steger thought she might specialize in pediatrics. But her third year's last rotation changed that track.

"I signed up for psychiatry ER," she said. "Whatever I decided to do, I was going to have to deal with difficult people and people in great distress. If I could spend six weeks in the psych ER, I was not going to be intimidated by anyone's behavior. Instead, I fell in love with this."

Co-president of the Psychiatry Club and vice president of the honor society Alpha Omega Alpha's UT Southwestern chapter her fourth year, Dr. Steger has made quite an impression on those around her, said Dr. John Sadler, professor of psychiatry.

"I've always considered medical students an extraordinary group of people to work with -- so bright, so thoughtful, so talented, so serious when seriousness is warranted," he said. "Kate Steger, however, is even more extraordinary than the usual. She's a most promising basic scientist, a conscientious clinician, a very funny and mischievous author, and a generous citizen. By all counts, she should go far."

From UT Southwestern, Dr. Steger will traverse the country to Montreal for a psychiatry residency at McGill University Faculty of Medicine. Afterward, she hopes to find a position that allows her time for research and to treat patients, too.