Hunt-Tobey recovers history
When Bridget Hunt-Tobey took a course on human anatomy as part of Pitt’s Biomedical Masters Program in fall 2018, her goal was to gain a more solid understanding of the human body. She later came to learn how anatomy could reveal glimpses of lives disregarded by American history.
Hunt-Tobey (MS ’19), now a research technologist studying chronic kidney disease at Northwestern University, spent the summer of 2019 studying the remains of enslaved and free African Americans who’d worked at the Catoctin blast furnace in Maryland. Hunt-Tobey was an intern with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Because of Her Story program.
“You don’t typically understand history through analysis of bones, you understand it from documents and artwork and storytelling, and this is one more way to do it. But for a population like enslaved African Americans, for whom there’s very little documentation in the first place, it’s one of the only options now,” says Hunt-Tobey.
The charcoal blast furnace, which operated from around 1776 until 1903, forged iron for items ranging from household tools to the cannonballs fired by George Washington’s troops. The proprietors were slave owners who did not maintain records on the lives of laborers. By the mid-1800s, European immigrants began filling roles at the furnace, and the presence of the enslaved and free African Americans diminished.
“The absence of the story of the enslaved and free Black labor force at the furnace is one of the tragedy of slavery writ large: namely, the lack of a descendant community and erasure of the Black population and collective heritage from an era,” says Kari Bruwelheide, a Smithsonian specialist in skeletal biology and Hunt-Tobey’s mentor.
The process of rediscovering those stories began in earnest in 2015—four decades after the Maryland State Highway Administration uncovered remains during a road expansion. By then, techniques such as forensic facial reconstruction were available to researchers.
Hunt-Tobey used genetic marker information, data gleaned from the skeletons’ structures, potential environmental contaminants at the furnace and information from medical literature to paint a broader picture of what the laborers’ everyday lives might have looked like. Some cases, such as skeletons with elongated skulls caused by craniostenosis—a condition where an infant’s skull bone fuses over its brain too early—will help researchers study potential genetic implications of the condition. Hunt-Tobey also saw telltale calluses on femurs, indicating that the person likely worked as a cobbler and used a leg as a platform for hammering out soles.
One woman’s femur was misshapen from Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, which disrupts blood flow to the hip joint, resulting in brittle hip and femur bones. Typically, the flow returns and the bones heal. Yet, at the furnace, recovery time wasn’t an option for the woman. “Instead of forming the classic ball shape you see in a femur, it looked like a mushroom head,” said Hunt-Tobey. “She was able to walk and lived to be 35 or 40 years old, but she most likely walked with a limp and had some pain in her hip.”
Hunt-Tobey credits her Pitt anatomy course and Sandra Murray, professor of cell biology, with giving her an eye for detecting abnormalities in bone. (Murray also demonstrated soft skills that Hunt-Tobey aspires to emulate today.)
“The reason anthropologists can learn as much as they do about an individual and extrapolate that to a population is by really focusing on minute details. That has already been something I’ve needed at this new job,” Hunt-Tobey says. —Adapted from Pittwire
Plenty to Gain: Geraldine McGinty
BY RACHEL MENNIES
Will artificial intelligence replace radiologists? As AI’s deep-learning technology has evolved to read radiological images and identify pathologies, a lot of people are asking that question. But radiologists, says Geraldine McGinty (Res ’93), have nothing to fear from AI—and plenty to gain. “There’s been a lot of hype about machines replacing radiologists,” she notes, “but I do not see radiologists as being afraid. From the inception of our specialty we have always embraced innovation.”
McGinty, who recently completed her term as the first woman to chair the American College of Radiology’s (ACR) Board of Chancellors, now serves as ACR president, representing more than 38,000 radiologists. She’s also associate professor of clinical radiology and population health sciences as well as chief strategy officer for the Weill Cornell Medicine Physician Organization. For this leader of radiologists, answering AI questions is paramount for the future of their profession. “I’m excited to influence the beginning of this journey,” she says, “by leading the ACR during this period of rapid change.”
One key issue is addressing diversity: not just that of practitioners, but also of patients and their data. “AI is not only prone to bias,” she says, “but it can actually amplify and propagate bias.” Fighting bias with diversity means mindfully collecting data that considers not just patients’ ethnic and gender backgrounds, but also where patients live. Imaging findings, she notes, don’t always indicate the same diagnoses in disparate regions of the country. For example: the diagnosis of histoplasmosis, also known as Ohio River Valley Fever because of its proliferation in that area. It can cause lung nodules that “might be confusing,” says McGinty, “without the context of knowing the patient’s geography.”
As part of her commitment to medicine’s future, McGinty views mentorship as “a critical part” of her career. She received Cornell’s Jessica M. and Natan Bibliowicz Award for Excellence in Mentoring Women Faculty in 2019. She attributes the mentorship of Jules Sumkin, chair of Pitt’s Department of Radiology, to her own professional growth: From him, she says, “I learned so much about what it means to be a radiologist.”
AUG. 20, 1932–APRIL 3, 2020
Steven Beering’s idea of retirement was to advise the president and Congress as chair of the National Science Board and to join Pitt’s Board of Trustees as chair of the Health Sciences Committee and the Board of Visitors for the School of Medicine. The academic leader who served as a physician to a president and astronauts died in April at age 87.
Although Beering was behind in high school when he immigrated to Pittsburgh from Germany after World War II, he quickly caught up and went on to attend Pitt, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1954 and earned his MD in 1958. To cover tuition, Beering tutored French and German, drove a cab, worked in a steel mill and translated medical articles. Decades later, he received an honorary doctorate from Pitt (and nine other universities), and was named a Pitt Legacy Laureate, as well as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow.
After medical school, Beering became a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Medical Corps, where he treated President Eisenhower and the first NASA astronauts. He served as dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine and 18 years as president of Purdue University.
Arthur S. Levine, dean emeritus of the School of Medicine, says Beering “combined a European elegance and classicism with an American ease, intellectual hunger and abundant leadership ability.” —Samantha Paige Rosen
NOV. 21, 1912–MARCH 7, 2020
Paul Caplan’s (MD ’36) hallmark was listening. After graduating from Pitt Med, Caplan began his internship at Montefiore—the only Pittsburgh hospital hiring Jewish physicians in the 1930s. There, notes his great-nephew Joshua Levenson (MD ’11, Res ’14), “he learned the skill, the art, of medicine … being able to talk to people and comfort them.”
Caplan was probably Pitt Med’s oldest graduate when he died at age 107 in March.
During World War II, Caplan treated wounded D-Day soldiers on Omaha Beach as a captain with the U.S. Air Force. Decades later he returned to Europe as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tour physician.
A professor of medicine at Pitt for 66 years, Caplan taught from 1946 to 2012 and was named a Master of the American College of Rheumatology. With a National Institutes of Health grant, he researched osteoarthritis in Pennsylvania coal miners in the 1960s. He traveled to Haiti, where he treated patients outside of rheumatology: “I carried a textbook and learned as I went,” Caplan told the Pitt Medical Alumni Association upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
“I asked questions and, more importantly, I listened.”
Caplan retired at age 96. Levenson—who remembers Caplan as a “second grandfather”—remarks, “If he could have kept going, he would have done it forever.” —John Hansen
James Funderburgh III
JUNE 30, 1945–NOV. 27, 2019
James Funderburgh had a musical laugh that rang through the halls—sometimes even reaching the floors above and below his office. As Paul Kinchington, who holds Pitt’s Joseph F. Novak, MD, Chair in Ophthalmology Research, remembers: “Jim laughed a lot. Loud and often. I could hear him from 50 feet away.”
That laugh “always inspired me to enjoy my work,” notes Funderburgh’s mentee Yiqin Du, Pitt associate professor of ophthalmology and developmental biology.
A self-described “born scientist,” Funderburgh was a professor of ophthalmology and the founder of Pitt’s Corneal Cell Biology Lab. He shared his passion for corneal research with his wife and lifelong lab and research partner, Martha Funderburgh. They developed a groundbreaking treatment for corneal scarring: the injection of adult stem cells directly into the cornea. The treatment has brought healing to patients in India.
The discovery led to other landmark ophthalmologic procedures, including one affectionately termed “eye teeth”—the use of stem cells extracted from teeth to heal corneas. “Jim was very good at thinking outside of the box,” remembers his co-“eye teeth” researcher Fatima Syed-Picard, assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine. That work is featured on the “Cornea-copia” episode of this magazine’s podcast, Pitt Medcast, from 2016.
The Department of Ophthalmology has established the Funderburgh Corneal Regeneration Project, which, says Kinchington, “will continue in his name with the goal to use stem cells to restore corneal transparency in patients.” —Rachel Mennies
W. Cory M. Johnston III
FEB. 25, 1973–FEB. 25, 2020
Cory Johnston’s life was defined by his loved ones, his patients and the mountains. He grew up skiing in Colorado. After college at Yale, he joined a Utah ski patrol and witnessed a medical team treat an injured skier. In that moment, he decided to go to medical school.
At Pitt Med, Johnston (MD ’06) was a top student. “He dazzled the surgeons,” remembers neurologist and classmate Jordan Reichman (MD ’06). Joan Harvey, retired associate dean for student affairs, says Johnston’s evaluations highlighted his diligence, infectious enthusiasm and clinical judgment. Several said he was the best student they had ever worked with.
Cardiologist and classmate Kia Afshar (MD ’06) remembers when they were third-year students and Johnston was asked to do a trauma survey. “You’d imagine [the surgeon] would go to the ER resident and attending on call, but he looked to Cory,” says Afshar. “Cory did it so smoothly, as if that was his 50th one. And he was so humble.”
At the University of Utah, where he did his general surgery residency, Johnston won the residency-wide teaching award. He completed a hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery fellowship. Until his death from a skiing accident on his 47th birthday, he was a general surgeon at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital in Oregon.
He was also husband to surgeon Pippa Newell and dad to Rocky, 6, and Bode, 4.
Afshar remembers him as a “phenomenal” researcher, educator, doctor, outdoorsman, family man and friend. —SPR
“You Got This”
Hey alumni, remember how being a medical student is, like, WHEW, hard? “Go to your memory banks and think of how just a little bit may have helped you at that time,” says David Metro (MD ’94), MAA executive committee board president. “You think of the expenses of school, but think of some of these new expenses students have. They’re doing all these things that we didn’t even think of,” like presenting research at national conferences. And the pandemic has put more pressure on students.
Pitt Med students need your financial support and mentorship. The MAA has been developing digital programs to offer student networking by specialty and help third-year students get in touch with alumni who are now in their residencies. (That way students can get the scoop on programs they might not get to visit.)
So alums, whether you’ve got a dime or time, drop MAA director Alexandra Rigby a line: firstname.lastname@example.org. —Cara Masset