Profile with Julie Levison
Julie Levison (Pennsylvania & Wadham 1998) is an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a practicing infectious disease clinician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She is a research member of the Medical Practice Evaluation Center in the Divisions of Infectious Diseases and General Medicine at MGH, where she has developed a research program focused on addressing barriers to HIV care for immigrants. She holds a BA in history from Wellesley College, an MPhil in economic and social history from Oxford University, and an M.D. in medicine and master’s in public health from Harvard University.
Rhodes Project: What do you like most about living in Massachusetts?
Julie Levison: A special retreat for me is going on a run around Lake Waban at Wellesley College, my undergraduate alma mater. New England coastline views are in easy reach--beaches, rocky crags, marshes—and they clear my mind and set the imagination to wander. I’ve been in the area since 1994, except for the two years I was in England, so I have a strong attachment to the geography and friendships.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?
Julie Levison: Out Stealing Horses by the Norweigian author, Per Petterson. The book is about a man in his late 60s living in a cabin and thinking about a pivotal summer for him in 1948. Petterson’s precision with words is powerful. As a clinician, I appreciate learning how different people evaluate and describe what they observe. Another book I recently read, and I think should be required reading for medical students and students of public health is Dr. John Rich’s, Wrong Place, Wrong Time. It’s an account of urban violence, particularly among young black men, through interviews Dr. Rich conducted with patients in the trauma wards at Boston Medical Center. He develops long-standing relationships with many of the study participants, visits them at home and in prison for those who later are incarcerated. He shows that a good physician does more than just consider the biological context of patients but also their life circumstances.
Rhodes Project: What inspired you to go into medicine?
Julie Levison: I was definitely shaped by my environment. Both of my parents were academic physicians and patient oriented. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the hospital. Sometimes that meant sitting at the nurses’ station or in the office while my parents rounded on patients. Nonetheless, I was surrounded by and really saw the highs and lows in medicine. Generally speaking, I was drawn by the personal stories of patients’ lives and how physicians, through caring for them, could be a force for good will. Now as a physician-investigator, having the access, interaction and relationships with patients is central to my professional satisfaction and fuels my interest in patient-oriented research.
Rhodes Project: What is your favourite part of your job now?
Julie Levison: An exceptional characteristic of life as a physician is the ability to play different roles. I spend most of my time doing research, but I take pride in my clinical training and the influence clinical work has on my research. I take care of patients in the hospital as an infectious diseases consultant as well as in the outpatient clinic. I see my role as a physician as trying to extract or solicit what my patients feel is important. I try to synthesize the stories I hear into what I think is a holistic, logical picture, and in the process my patients have shared their worldview and taught me much. The experience “in the trenches” has offered up a number of interesting research questions, which has led me to pursue multiple studies examining barriers to HIV care and developing interventions to improve access to medical care. These types of questions naturally lend themselves to an interest in public health. Problems related to infectious disease emphasize the connection of the individual to society because one often needs community or society-based solutions to tackle individual risk for these conditions.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job now?
Julie Levison: I think we’re in a political climate that has challenged the value placed on research and innovation. Funding for scientific investigation is scarce. It’s important to have investigators who are trained in clinical medicine because, as a society, we want our research to be relevant and shaped by problems that are clinically-based and that will translate into effective treatments for disease. I worry that people who would otherwise go into clinical research are not going into these fields because of the exceptional hurdles to pursue investigative careers. The health of society relies on having an adequate cadre of innovators and exceptionally trained clinicians, and I am concerned that young people interested in a career in clinical medicine will be deterred by what they hear of the difficulties in practicing patient-centered medicine. On a personal level, finding enough time in the day to raise a young growing family and develop an academic career is challenging. My husband and family are immensely supportive. Quality, affordable child care is essential and so difficult to find.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman going into medical school?
Julie Levison: I think that medicine remains a remarkable and unique profession. As a physician, on a regular basis there is the opportunity to contribute towards good in someone’s life – and hopefully society – as well as remaining intellectually stimulated. A career in medicine can also afford flexibility in life depending on how you choose to focus your efforts.
In terms of gender and workplace diversity, yes, the profession has changed towards greater inclusivity, although it has changed slowly. I would encourage men and women who have the ambition for a career in medicine to pursue it and not give up. You need to have thick skin, a sense of purpose (even if the exact details of the purpose changes with time), and the ability to reach out for help and identify a mentor to offer tools to traverse the course. We need people to come into medicine and continue to be agents of change. The only way that medicine will change is if people have expectations for a more progressive culture.
Rhodes Project: Can you describe a memorable teaching moment?
Julie Levison: Serving as an attending physician on the inpatient general medicine service, called the “Intensive Teaching Unit”, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching hospital at Harvard Medical School. A unique aspect of the service is that we take the medical residents to the Fogg Museum at Harvard for dinner, and then discussion of various pieces of art work guided by one of the curators. Both attending and resident physicians are equal students before the art. We learn about the power of observation of a different sort; we also see how differently each of us experiences a visual encounter. I found that quickly the artwork became personal metaphors. For me it was Van Gogh’s “Three Pairs of Shoes”; what do these worn yet uninhabited shoes tell us about their owner, and why did I find this painting meaningful to select and describe? These were questions I asked myself. Many of the images invoked poignant stories in our medical training. We all saw how personal the process of observation is and how important it is to evaluate the process of observation.
Rhodes Project: Who are some historical figures you would want to have coffee with?
Julie Levison: The first three who come to mind are Marie Curie, Rosalyn Yallow, and Rosalind Franklin. I would love to hear their personal stories and the human factors involved in their contributions to and recognition in science.
Rhodes Project: Can you describe a meal you’ve had that stands out in your memory?
Julie Levison: A meal is about who you share it with. It’s very much an experience of the senses. I recall moving into our current home the day before Thanksgiving. We shared Thanksgiving dinner, my parents, husband and daughter and I, while sitting on cardboard boxes, eating takeout Indian food.
There was also a South African reunion of the hundredth anniversary of the Rhodes Scholarship in Cape Town with Nelson Mandela. That was a remarkable reunion. I had never been to South Africa before. The physical and natural environment was complex – the beauty, but also the poverty in South Africa, and the history of the Rhodes Scholarship. It was also very special to connect with a number of friends both new and old. The meals that we shared there stimulated a number of years of research that followed in my work on HIV in South Africa. I remember those conversations with nostalgia.
Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?
Julie Levison: Certainly being with Anna, my daughter, is a remarkable gift. She is 21 months old and time spent with her is so rewarding and fulfilling. In addition to that, long distance running is a passion of mine. While my runs are shorter now, being able to spend some personal time, having time that has no soundtrack and just being outside is vital in clearing my mind, lowering my blood pressure, letting thoughts go where they may, or not thinking at all. For me, running is really my antidote. Either doing that alone or with my husband is a favorite hobby.
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