Dr. Yvonne Chiu took some time from her pediatric dermatology practice and performing cutting-edge research to speak with us about why dermatology research is so important, the necessity of training and mentoring the next generation of doctors, and how much dermatology as a specialty has to offer medicine as a whole.
Dermatology Foundation: You specialize in pediatric dermatology. Did you always know that would be your path?
Dr. Chiu: I always knew I wanted to be a pediatric dermatologist. My initial path coming into medical school was to become a pediatrician. And then during medical school, I discovered this field of pediatric dermatology and realized that was what I was destined to do. Most of my research is in kids with autoimmune connective tissue disease.
DF: What was your first experience with the Dermatology Foundation?
Dr. Chiu: I was still a dermatology resident when I first heard about the Clinical Symposia meeting that’s held each year in Naples, but I also learned about the grants and awards program. While I was a resident, I applied for a Dermatology Foundation award to help fund my pediatric dermatology fellowship training and research. I’ve been involved with the DF for at least 10-12 years now.
When I was a resident, I was very closely mentored by a faculty member, Dr. Beth Drolet, and that mentorship helped me find my niche for myself and decide kind of what I wanted to do with my future career. Dr. Drolet helped encourage me to apply for Dermatology Foundation funding.
“[A DF grant] helped me establish my research early on and realize that I could successfully support my research.”
I was happy to receive the grant. It helped me establish my research early on and realize that I could successfully support my research. It boosted my confidence in that way but getting the grants also helped develop my CV so that I could keep going on to get further award funding. That’s been a really important role that the Foundation played in my career.
DF: Tell us a little bit more about your research.
Dr. Chiu: So, my main research interest is in a disease called morphea. It’s an autoimmune disease of the skin that typically causes some skin thickening. Morphea can affect kids and adults, but what I realized during my training was that there was very little known about pediatric morphea. These kids can have a horribly disfiguring disease. They can have extracutaneous manifestations such as seizures or headaches, eye abnormalities, arthritis, so they could have very severe disease. And yet at the time, we didn’t fully understand how to treat this disease, or why this disease happened and the pathogenesis behind it. That’s what I’ve focused my career on researching and discovering.
DF: Wow, it’s exciting that you are making progress in understanding and treating this disease. There are also many diseases and functions that manifest in skin.
Dr. Chiu: Exactly. You know, those people who don’t know dermatology don’t realize that we oftentimes care for patients who have multi-system or multi-organ disease. I think the skin is so interconnected.
DF: As you look ahead in your career, it’s such an interesting time for the specialty. What do you look to for the future?
Dr. Chiu: You know, I think dermatology has traditionally not been recognized or well-taught in many medical school curriculums and then physicians get out into practice and realize that there’s actually quite a bit of dermatology that they encounter in their everyday patient populations.
So, I am looking forward to more recognition of dermatology as a specialty, recognition that there is a lot we dermatologists have to offer the house of medicine. We have expertise and can help partner with other physicians to care for their patients. I’m looking forward to a resurgence.
“[Dermatologists] have expertise and can help partner with other physicians to care for their patients.”
There may have been this perception of dermatologists as being mostly cosmetic doctors — pimple poppers or not being serious physicians. There’s so much more to dermatology than people realize. I’m really hoping that with the research that we’re doing in our field, the advances that we’re making in treatments, that we reclaim the medical side of our field.
DF: Was there ever a particularly critical moment where you felt like being connected to the Dermatology Foundation made a difference in the path forward?
“There’s so much more to dermatology than people realize.”
Dr. Chiu: Yeah, so I can think of one moment that was very defining in my career. I mentioned that the DF funded me when I was a pediatric dermatology fellow, but I received the notification at the American Academy of Dermatology Annual Meeting. It was in Miami that year, 2010. I remember getting the news that I had received the award while I was on a shuttle bus on my way to the meeting. At that time, I was still trying to decide what I wanted to do after fellowship. That moment made me feel: “You can do this. You can be an academic pediatric dermatologist. You can be a researcher.”
It gave me that feeling of confidence, of street cred, like other people believed in me. It helped me believe that I could go on to be a national figure in pediatric dermatology. I wanted to commit to an academic career and work to be a leader in the field.
DF: That early vote of confidence can be so important. Do you see the need for education to help others understand the possibilities the field offers?
Dr. Chiu: I think a lot of our junior people, students and residents and junior faculty members, need a lot of mentorship. You know, the world of medicine is much more wide open than it was years ago. People are doing things beyond just academics and private practice. You can work in consulting, you can join a pharmaceutical company, you can do so many other things in medicine that are outside the realm of what we consider traditional practice.
“It’s helpful to mentor our more junior learners and make them aware that there are a lot of benefits to being in academic dermatology, and it makes a very fulfilling career.”
But my passion – and what I hope to continue to build a pipeline for — are those people who are going to continue doing academic dermatology, who are going to care for patients, conduct cutting-edge research, and educate the next generation.
It’s helpful to mentor our more junior learners and make them aware that there are a lot of benefits to being in academic dermatology, and it makes a very fulfilling career.
DF: It sounds like mentorship was very important for you.
Dr. Chiu: It really was. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have some very strong mentors. I got very lucky here at MCW and developed relationships with mentors who helped shepherd me through my early years and made me feel that it was important to continue that mentorship cycle and give back.
DF: Your days are so busy, how much time do you have to invest in ongoing education, mentoring, and other areas of your profession?
Dr. Chiu: That’s a great question. I have about 40-50% of my time devoted to education and research. I also serve as the dermatology residency program director here at MCW, so I have a chance to interact very closely with the residents and that’s been very fulfilling.
DF: Is there anything else you feel is important for people to know about the Foundation?
Dr. Chiu: It’s important to recognize that the Foundation exists for all dermatologists. A lot of dermatologists may feel like the DF is not for me because I’m not an academic. But without people continuing to do research we will never make the advances in our field that will lead to advances in patient care and new drug development. Every dermatologist should recognize that the Foundation is here to improve their own future.
Dr. Yvonne Chiu is a fellowship-trained and board-certified pediatric dermatologist. Her research and clinical interests are in morphea, also called localized scleroderma. She also has interests in rheumatologic conditions such as lupus erythematosus and dermatomyositis. In addition to taking care of patients and performing cutting-edge research, Dr. Chiu is passionate about training the next generation of doctors by teaching medical students and residents.
Dr. Chiu strongly believes that the best care possible for each child comes from a strong partnership between families and the doctor. She provides the medical expertise and guidance to empower each family to make the best decisions for their child’s health.