Finding her true path

[ Spring/Summer 2012 ]

Kate Powis

Thirteen years ago, Kate Powis, then in her late thirties, earned a handsome salary as a vice president at electronics retailer Circuit City, overseeing an operation of hundreds of people and regularly flying from state to state on a corporate jet.

Today, driving to work at Scottish Livingstone Hospital in Molepolole, Botswana, Powis gazes out at mud huts, donkey carts, and carrion birds wheeling in the sky. Here, she cares for adults or children in the outpatient HIV clinic or in the wards. Working on the Mpepu study—a randomized clinical trial led by Harvard AIDS Initiative’s researchers Roger Shapiro and Shahin Lockman—Powis analyzes why babies born to HIV-infected mothers don’t thrive like other babies. In 2012, she received a coveted five-year career development grant from the National Institutes of Health.

A 180-degree turnaround? Yes and no. Powis, who earned her medical degree in 2003 at age 43 and her MPH at Harvard School of Public Health in 2009, sees a common thread linking her business and medical careers. Working in finance and earlier in store security, she focused on devising the most effective and efficient ways to get things done and on measuring performance.

Today, she applies that same passion for results to public health—with outcomes that are far more personally satisfying. “Rather than forecasting staffing requirements or preparing for a ‘due diligence’ meeting with Standard and Poor’s, I have one-on-one interactions with patients and their families,” she explains. “And I use data from large clinical trials to improve the health of women and infants collectively.”

A journey that began on a lark

Powis’ life-altering journey began on a lark. Friends in a church group were traveling to Jamaica to rebuild the roof on a church that had been damaged in a hurricane.

“I had this perception of Jamaica as a resort community,” Powis says. “We immediately drove from the airport to this impoverished village up in the hills. No running water—kids would carry up buckets every day from the bottom of the hill. One little girl was getting toted around because when she was two, she had broken her leg and it had never been properly set. The leg was grossly deformed and she couldn’t walk on her own—all because she didn’t have access to health care.”

Powis pauses. “That was astonishing to me. I thought, ‘This shouldn’t be.’”

After the Jamaica trip, Powis changed course. She began taking the science prerequisites she needed to get into medical school, one course at a time, at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I realized I could be doing more important things with my life than earning a profit for Circuit City.”

After medical school and a residency at MGH (she now works part of the year at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Chelsea Healthcare Clinic), Powis in 2007 received a Global Women’s Health Fellowship, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital-sponsored award that supports international research, clinical work, and a degree at HSPH. She immediately offered her skills to the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative.

Using all her skills

At first, the HAI’s Shapiro, associate professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, assigned her clinical responsibilities, as well as work with mothers and infants on a study examining whether antiretroviral therapy for pregnant or breastfeeding HIV-infected women could help reduce disease transmission to their infants. But soon he recognized her other talents—like when she helped the team switch from a paper-based to an electronic data collection system—and expanded her role.

“Kate can do everything, which makes her unique,” says Shapiro. “She’s probably the hardest worker I’ve ever met. She approaches her job with an attention to detail that’s rarely seen. And she has a sense of the larger picture—how the research fits into the public health infrastructure in Botswana.”

Powis’ NIH career award represents a significant recognition of her efforts. “She picked an important and timely topic for her research,” says Shapiro. “As we roll out antiretrovirals in pregnancy and protect more infants from HIV infection, we need to make sure they also survive infancy.”

Clear commitment

According to Max Essex, Mary Woodard Lasker Professor of Health Sciences, and HAI chair, “Apart from her own research, which has been significant, Kate has helped us design ways to streamline the acquisition of information and data and determine how best to analyze it,” he says. It’s a crucial task because of the massive amounts of information that must be processed. “There are more than three-quarters of a million human blood samples in freezers,” Essex says, “and a new study enrolling more than 60,000 people.”

It’s not easy to make a mid-career switch the way Powis did, Essex adds. But Powis was—and is—clearly committed to developing herself into a first-rate doctor and medical researcher. “She has the same excitement about her work as a 25-year-old doing the same thing,” says Essex.

Though Powis says that she was happy in her former professional life, she doesn’t miss it. Looking back, she thinks she needed to try different careers before settling on the right one.

“In many respects, I am doing the same thing now as I did before. I look at medicine and research with an eye toward improving systems, automating things, ensuring that errors can be eliminated—whether it be errors in the provision of care or errors in the collection of data for research,” she says. “But because
of the women and children I’m working with, and the impact I am having both on individual lives and collectively in the public health arena, I know I’ve now found my
true calling.”

Karen Feldscher is a senior writer at HSPH.