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Veronica Searles Quick

Studying evolution - from coral reefs to psychiatric diseases

(Ma​y 2017) During her seven years at CU School of Medicine pursuing an MD and PhD, Veronica Searles Quick occasionally daydreamed about an alternate life.

“I’d think ‘I could be scuba diving in the South Pacific instead of reading notes at 2 in the morning,’” she says with a laugh.

Before entering the CU School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program in 2010, Searles Quick studied evolution – mainly of coral reefs. She’d become intrigued with evolutionary studies in high school during a course in environmental conservation.

After earning undergraduate degrees in 2007 in marine biology and international relations from Brown University, she worked from 2007-08 at Brown’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies researching the genetics of mood and addiction disorders. From 2008 to 2010, she worked at Stanford University with the Palumbi Laboratory at Hopkins Marine Station, studying marine genetics to help inform the design of marine protected areas.

Even while in a marine laboratory, she maintained her curiosity about the genetic influences on disease. This, and a desire for more patient interaction, drove her to consider a career in medicine.

“I really loved research but there wasn’t enough interpersonal interaction,” says Searles Quick, 33. “The lab environment can be isolating, and while I wanted to keep a hand in research, I felt I needed a better mix of lab and clinical environments.”

Her boyfriend (now husband) was looking for doctoral programs in neuroscience and spoke fondly of his research experience at CU Boulder. To Searles Quick, a native of Berkeley, Calif., Colorado was part of the “great swath in the middle of the country between coasts.”

“I applied on a whim,” she says, “but during my interview visit I fell in love both with the program and the city.”

In the Sikela Laboratory at CU, she joined ongoing research projects examining regions in the human genome that are unique to humans and are linked to psychosis, autism and disorders of brain size. “I came into lab at fortuitous time. It’s been incredibly interesting.“

She has been particularly interested in the potential interplay of human evolution and psychiatric disease. “Many have theorized that the unique genetic changes that produced the human mind may also contribute to psychiatric disease. These disorders, in turn, may be thought of as the price we pay as a species for being human”. She describes a quote from The Madness Within Us, by Robert Freedman, MD, former Department of Psychiatry chairman, which suggests that individuals with schizophrenia pay the heavy price for adaptive genetic variants to persist in the human population. Such variants, while beneficial for the population overall, can lead to disease in some individuals.

She continues to work with the Sikela Laboratory to explore this interplay, examining human-specific genetic changes in multiple psychiatric disorders.

Searles Quick, who earned a doctorate from CU in 2015 in Human Medical Genetics and Genomics, was active outside the lab and classroom and during her third year became president of the Anschutz Medical Campus Student Senate while her medical school classmates were busy with clinical rotations.

“I had more flexibility in my schedule,” she says. “And I found representing the student body, and making sure our interests were heard, extremely fulfilling.”

As senate president, her key focus was on Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

She helped survey students in each of the Anschutz campus schools to determine the extent of sexual harassment.

“I wanted to come up with a better system for disseminating information to the student body about what their options are if they encounter a problem, and I wanted to highlight this as an issue on our campus.“

Multiple individuals among the school’s leadership were instrumental in improving students’ awareness of reporting procedures.

“Students were wary of reporting because they didn’t know what would happen if they brought an issue to light. They didn’t want unforeseen repercussions. The administrative leadership on campus addressed this and has responded with multiple campus initiatives to improve awareness.”

She also volunteered at several organizations including KIPP Academy, teaching classes on Saturdays to underserved students in subjects like heart dissection, DNA extraction, and psychology, and with the Latin American Publication Initiative for Scholars through the Center for Global Health, where she wrote articles for a magazine in Guatemala about health issues like marijuana use by adolescents, blood donation, and breast feeding.

She credits her husband, family and friends for keeping her aloft during hard times and recommends incoming students pay attention to their health – both mental and physical. By being honest with each other when they were struggling, she and her classmates learned to depend on one another.

“Don’t be the person who pretends everything is OK. This training program is challenging for all of us, and by finding a good support network you’ll be better able to withstand daily stressors and identify when you need additional help.”

Now bound for University of California, San Francisco to study psychiatry, Searles Quick hopes to eventually have her own lab.  When she’s not doing research or seeing patients, she and her husband, also a California native, plan to explore the inner coastal zone of the California coast.

“I definitely kept the (marine biology) bug, but am grateful that I chose medicine as a career path.”