issue Spring 2023

Innovation Through Pathology

By Aubrey Penney

From studying lobsters as an undergraduate to analyzing heme analogues for treatment of neonatal jaundice, Elizabeth Bundock, MD ’01, PhD ’99, has been combing through cellular clues from the earliest stages of her career. These formative experiences crystallized her desire to focus instead on human disease. In search of translational results, she chose to pursue the MD/PhD combined degree and joined the research community at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS), where she studied the dopamine neurons lost in Parkinson’s disease.

Completing her residency in pathology and fellowship in neuropathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Bundock sought a path forward that balanced the needs of her young family, the health of her community and the work that gave her the most joy. “You’re a fish in a stream, pushed this way and that; you make choices along the way discovering what you love. You wind up in the place that’s right for you.”

For Dr. Bundock, the stream flowed toward her current role as the chief medical examiner for the state of Vermont, where she performs medicolegal postmortem examinations. Dr. Bundock also plays a role in legal and legislative proceedings, providing testimony and data that affect her community.

“If you think about all the innovations we’ve had to keep us safe, many of them are driven by information coming from medical examiners.”

“Public health is a large part of what a medical examiner does. If you think about all the innovations we’ve had to keep us safe, many of them are driven by information coming from medical examiners,” she said. “Seatbelts in cars, the design of the steering wheel — these things are born from observations of the injuries and fatalities caused by hazards in our environment. That stimulates change, improvement and innovation to keep us safer.”

Those improvements are true victories in the midst of challenging work. Dr. Bundock’s favorite part of the scientific process has always been the conclusion — that final revelation that brings everything together. Each new case provides important answers to the families of Vermont and to every party involved in making life safer for the state as a whole.

“I think that’s what drove me to where I am today. I like the lab setting, because it’s so hands-on, but for a career in research, you have to be OK with delayed gratification,” she said. “It may take your entire career to answer the question you started with, if that! So you have to be really in love with the process. Somewhere along the way, intentionally or not, I realized that I just love getting the answers. My current career allows for that.”

Dr. Bundock forged that career by learning more about herself with each bend in the stream, a process of self-discovery that followed what truly gave her fulfillment and joy. Knowing that she could not have predicted her current role at the start of her graduate career, Dr. Bundock’s strongest advice for SGPS students is not to overplan.

“Don’t pigeonhole yourself. At each point when you have to make a decision, go with the one that you really love, the one that fascinates you, because that’s going to be the foundation for your success. It will get you to a place where you are happy. Don’t try to see the future — just try to know yourself.” 

Aubrey Penney is academic program coordinator for RFU’s School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. This story originally appeared in the 2022 edition of Hypothesis, the annual SGPS newsletter.