Alumni Spotlight: Erin Wilfong '03

August 26, 2016
Head shot of Erin Wilfong

Erin Wilfong was born in Missouri, but moved to the Columbus area when she was in fourth grade and attended high school at Thomas Worthington. During her time there, she was quite active with a church youth group, athletics, and classical music (flute and voice).  She also ran cross country in the fall but her primary sport was softball the other nine months of the year. Wilfong says her most defining activity in high school though was being a foreign exchange student in a small town in Northern Germany called Husum a.d. Nordsee, during her senior year.  Speaking about this experience, she states “That was the year that taught me I could do anything I set my mind to.  Nothing is more terrifying than being 17 and walking onto a plane to move across the world where you don’t know a soul or speak the language.  Even today when I am scared to do something, this is the life experience that I go back to.”

After graduating from high school, she attended The Ohio State University’s Columbus campus, majoring in Chemistry and German. Although Ohio State wasn’t one of Wilfong’s top picks when applying, it gave her the best scholarship package and season football tickets. What really cemented the choice though was the promise by the honors and scholars program that the honors classes would feel like a small liberal arts programs - She agrees this couldn’t have been truer.  Recalling her decision she says “Ohio State delivered with small classes and amazing professors who served as both research mentors, career mentors, and life mentors. “ Outside of the classroom, she also volunteered at the medical center, tutored, and researched.

As mentors at OSU, Erin mentioned Dr. Terry Gustafson, Dr. Anne McCoy, and Dr. Matthew Platz. She notes that Dr. Gustafson was an amazing mentor and truly cared about each and every person in the lab and served as that surrogate parent. She also added, “Not only was he a great academic mentor, but he was actually a research collaborator during my PhD.  The paper that we wrote together is my favorite piece of research thus far in my career.” When speaking of Dr. McCoy, she mentioned that Anne was an amazing researcher and had infinite patience. Wilfong also added that she had needed to see that women can succeed in science, and she exemplified that.  In addition, Wilfong stated Dr. Platz was an amazing research mentor as well and a major influence with regards to pursuing a PhD in chemistry.

But when did this love of Chemistry first start? In short, Wilfong grew up surrounded by it.  Her father graduated from college with a Chemistry degree when she was two years old. Her first set of Legos was his old organic chemistry molecule set. She recalls randomly sticking the various atoms together, and then her father would come home and tell her whether the molecule could actually exist and why. Thinking back, she states “I think that is why chemistry never seemed daunting to me.  I had been taught about carbon and oxygen and hydrogen atoms my whole life.”

Since graduating from Ohio State in 2003, Wilfong has trained at top notch institutions. She completed an MD/PhD Program at Duke University and graduated with a PhD in Chemistry in 2011.  Her dissertation was in physical organic chemistry, and she notes that if it weren’t for all of Dr. McCoy’s patience with her as an undergraduate, Wilfong would never have had the foundation in physical chemistry to have completed that degree.  After Duke, she moved to Johns Hopkins Hospital to complete her residency in Internal Medicine.  In 2014, she moved to the University of California San Francisco to complete a rheumatology fellowship.  This was a pivotal point in her career since her rheumatology fellowship included a 1 year post-doc.  She spent the year in Dr. Michael Matthay’s lab investigating bone marrow derived stem cells and how they might be beneficial in acute lung injury and other diseases. Wilfong believes the reason this was such a pivotal year due to the fact that it marked the transition from being a true basic research scientist to a translational scientist, which is her ultimate goal.

More recently, she has been at Vanderbilt University for a pulmonary/critical care fellowship since July of this year.  Throughout her residency and fellowship, she has taken a special interest in how the immune system can go so far astray and lead to life threatening autoimmune diseases such as diffuse alveolar hemorrhage (inflammation of the lung capillaries leading to bleeding in the lungs) and macrophage activation syndrome (a severe inflammatory response that leads to multi-organ failure).  Once she completes her training, her dream is to study severe, life-threatening manifestations of rheumatologic diseases and understand why some patients are so much more severely affected than others. 

There are also some other perks of being at the later stages of clinical training and having some weekends off to explore the area around her, she says.  Wilfong greatly enjoys hiking and has expressed an excitement to explore her new home in Tennessee. 

So, should we plan on seeing Wilfong around campus anytime soon? She says she has not been back for a couple of years. However, her PhD work culminated in a collaboration with Dr. Gustafson, specifically, investigating how proteins contract and relax with binding ligands. She says “It was so much fun to interact with him as a doctoral student when he had been my introductory chemistry professor.  It’ll probably be next year before I come back due to clinical responsibilities, but I would love to go to an Ohio State football game again sooner than later.”

Looking back over her rigorous academic career, Wilfong has been inspired by many of her female mentors.  Dr. Lianne Gensler, Dr. Jinoos Yazdany, Dr. Mary Nakamura, and Dr. Sonye Danoff have all shown her that it is possible to have a career and a family. She knows it isn’t easy, there are struggles, but it is not an unattainable dream. Wilfong is in awe of how they juggle everything, and they have been hugely helpful in reminding her of the importance of balance and life outside of medicine/research. 

Now that she has come so far, Wilfong has one piece of advice for others who might follow in her path. Erin believes it is crucial to stay in touch with mentors and friends, “As I have moved from one institution to another, I have continued to build a mentoring network that I continue to rely on.  At least half of my research publications have been dependent on prior connections and friendships.  Plus, it is so much more fun to do research with friends.”

Below is a photo of Erin and her co-fellows, from left to right: Justin Hewlett, Thomas Atwater, and Ryan Brown.