Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Fred Hutch’s Steve Pergam caught a ‘bug’ for infectious illnesses and analysis

Steve Pergam in Beco do Batman, an area of São Paulo, Brazil, known for its heavy concentration of street art. (Photo courtesy of Steve Pergam)

Although Steve Pergam grew up with parents who were both physicians, he was never pushed to be a doctor as a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb. He credits a project in a local microbiology laboratory that assessed bacterial contamination of water with sparking his interest in public health and infectious diseases.

Pergam is now an associate member of the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and an associate professor in the Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington. And he’s our latest Geek of the Week.

Pergam said he embraced his liberal arts education throughout high school and college, even majoring in studio art, but he knew his goal was to go into medicine, so he found ways to get more hands-on experience.

“One of these experiences was at the National Institutes of Health working with an investigator on fungal and yeast infections in patients with weakened immune systems,” Pergam said. “That led to a lifelong interest in infectious diseases, and helped open my eyes to the importance of research in medicine. Throughout my career I have pursued ways to contribute to research, and in doing so, I hope I have also been able to help others catch the research ‘bug’ like I did.”

At Fred Hutch, Pergam has found a place that combines all of his interests into what he calls a “dynamic package” with innovative research, dedicated colleagues and “a population of patients where I know my work has an important and tangible impact.”

Asked what he might have concentrated on had he not followed his current path, Pergam pointed to palliative care and the incredibly rewarding close collaboration with patients and families dealing with chronic illness or end-of-life decisions.

“If I ever could find the time, I’ll try to figure out a way to go back and get more in-depth training in this arena,” he said.

Away from work, Pergam relaxes through app-based guided meditation and he enjoys wandering around with his camera taking photographs, reading, hiking a local trail or wandering Seattle streets with his dog.

“And if I can, I’ll be in a car or a plane going somewhere interesting and hopefully email free.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Steve Pergam:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I focus my clinical care and research on understanding the epidemiology, treatment and prevention of infections in immunosuppressed patients (those with weakened immune systems), such as cancer and transplant patients.

Working in this field is incredibly dynamic and I get to deal with a range of infections (some not seen in other patient populations) including novel emerging pathogens. I like to think that those in my field work to assure that patients who are undergoing cancer care are protected from life-threatening infections. Infections like influenza, adenovirus, aspergillus, vancomycin-resistant enterococcus are my bread and butter, while Candida auris, measles and NDM-1 Klebsiella pneumonia keep me up at night.

I work at an academic institution that supports the training of students, graduate students and physicians, which allows me to teach and mentor the next generation of public health experts, researchers and physicians. Plus, I am literally surrounded by eminent scientists and experts at Fred Hutch — so I get to be a perennial student. I am lucky, that what I do here at the Fred Hutch can have a direct impact on cancer and transplant patients throughout the world.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? World travel and the emergence of antibiotic resistance pathogens have the potential to the fundamentally alter the medical field as we know it. What happens around the world should be important to all of us (Zika or Ebola viruses as examples). The spread of antibiotic resistant pathogens will be a game changer that may someday limit our ability to perform routine surgery or give chemotherapy to cancer patients. My mini soap box public service announcement — get your vaccinations and wash your hands.

Where do you find your inspiration? First, anyone who works in the field of medicine is affected by the patients and families we care for. I am a better researcher because of my close interactions with patients, particularly at a cancer center. Second, I am continually inspired by my students and mentees. It is their ideas, desire and drive, that help make me a better leader, clinician and scientist. They help me push and expand the creative, left-side of my brain.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My Bose noise canceling earphones. Life can come at you from a thousand directions, and in a distracted world, they help me sharpen my concentration skills and focus on tasks.

Steve Pergam’s office space. (Photo courtesy of Steve Pergam)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have a great office with lots of natural light (when it isn’t cloudy), and I am surrounded by books. I have a stand-up desk to and I use a Turnstone Buoy when I am working. But I often collaborate and brainstorm at the coffee bar, because it is where I run into colleagues, get to talk science and occasionally come up with new and interesting ideas.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I am not sure I am the best at “work-life balance,” but I have used Basecamp to help work with students and collaborators. It helps me maintain a track record of academic papers and serves to help with version control. Basecamp also makes it easy to do my work from anywhere. I am sure I could use it even more wisely, but it has been an essential tool for my productivity.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard. He is the modern interstellar version of Gandalf.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I considered a time machine, but I prefer to focus on the amazing things happening in the present. The idea of a transporter that could take me at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world does sound transformational. I could travel instantly to grab pho at a shop on the streets Hanoi, to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. The traveler in me would love planning such weekend adventures.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I would use it to help “startup” junior researchers, specifically, I would split in two, and give half to exciting new scientists to pursue passion projects. Untethered research support can help free up the time and space to become incredibly innovative. I was lucky enough to have someone support my research in such a way and it was transformative.

I once waited in line for … “The Empire Strikes Back” at the movie theater the first day it was released. Still my favorite Star Wars movie — a bit dark, with Hoth, Imperial Walkers and an ending that rocked my world.

Your role models: I have so many mentors and role models that have shaped my career, that it is impossible to name one individual. My parents of course, but my career has really been by “a committee” of role models and mentors that have supported me throughout each step. If anything, I just keep gaining more as I get older.

Greatest game in history: Computer game? “The Last of Us.” Board game? “Pandemic” … (I am biased). Sports? Nebraska vs. Florida 1996 National Championship.

Best gadget ever: My Leica CL camera – it is a marvel. It is easy to use, technologically forward thinking and beautifully crafted.

First computer: IBM 5150 — the first personal computer. My parents were very prescient — they saw how important computers were going to be in our lives. First one that was mine? Apple Macintosh Plus.

Current phone: iPhone X.

Favorite app: I use Twitter as a scientist and to spread medical education. I think physicians and scientists on social media are critical to counter many of the false narratives and anti-science voices out there. We in science and healthcare need to be better communicators to our patients/the public, and Twitter helps both hone my message and increase its impact. The Twitter research community has also helped me identify people doing groundbreaking work that has a direct impact on my field and that I would otherwise never have found. As photographer, I love the app TinType – it takes photos and makes them look like old black and white daguerreotypes. Still use it often.

Favorite cause: Be the Match and Donate Life America. The first works to find stem cell transplant donors across the world to help patients with life-threatening cancers. The second is committed to increasing the number of donated organs for solid organ transplantation. Both are such important organizations that are doing work to help those in need. And, I always donate to PAWS and The Humane Society.

Most important technology of 2019: New technology that allows that ability to accurately track if patients are taking medications (e.g. AbilifyMycite®). These types of new approaches to personal data could be huge to how we treat patients. Coupled with other wearable technology, this type of tech has the potential to further our shift of healthcare from traditional hospital/clinic care to a future that I think will be more technology-based home care.:

Most important technology of 2021: Enhanced password protection/data security systems. As we continue to shift to nearly complete digital world, I hope methods for protection become more routine. Whether through fingerprint haptics, facial recognition and or quantum computing solutions – I hope we can develop new tools to protect the individual user.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Turn off your computer occasionally and go to the local art museum. Whenever I travel I make sure to go to the local museum or art locale. Color and creativity always give me a fresh perspective.

Website: Fred Hutch: Steve Pergam

Twitter: @PergamIC

LinkedIn: Steve Pergam

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