Kaiser Pursues Endocrinology Mysteries
Ursula Kaiser, MD, chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension, leads a career driven by curiosity. Her interest in endocrinology began during her medical training in Toronto, Canada, and she continues to seek solutions for endocrine-related problems in her lab at the Brigham today. Despite not knowing exactly what she wanted to do post-training, she knew that pursuing research questions related to endocrinology would guide her career.
“I always envisioned myself doing basic science research as a part of my career in medicine,” she recalls. “And then in early in medical school, I became convinced that endocrinology was my calling.”
Early in her career, her mentors nudged her to join a lab at the Brigham. Choosing the Brigham as her home led Kaiser to fruitful collaborations across many disciplines, as well as opportunities to serve as both a Research Oversight Committee (ROC) member and as a director of the Brigham Research Institute (BRI).
“I feel so fortunate to have had these opportunities,” she said. “I have had wonderful experiences here.”
A Perfect Combination
Kaiser’s educational journey began in Toronto, where she completed her medical studies through the clinical portion of her endocrine fellowship. Her fellowship program gave fellows the opportunity to decide whether to spend their second year of fellowship in the clinic or the research space. She decided to try research, a choice that ultimately helped shape her career path.
Her research interests in pituitary disease, neuroendocrinology and reproductive endocrinology began in medical school. Her mentors in Toronto encouraged her to think beyond Canada’s borders for career development opportunities. While at an Endocrine Society meeting, an annual event with endocrinologists from basic to clinical backgrounds, one of her mentors introduced her to her first connection to the Brigham — William Chin, MD, then chief of the Division of Genetics at the Brigham. Chin’s basic science lab studied gonadotropin regulation and the pituitary gland, which piqued Kaiser’s interest.
“That sounded perfect for me because I was very interested in combining my interests in basic science, pituitary disease and reproduction,” she said.
She eventually interviewed with Chin for a position in his lab and met other investigators working under him. Kaiser remembers, “The lab felt like an instant fit for me and, fortunately, Dr. Chin agreed.”
Joining the Chin lab was not only an important step on Kaiser’s career journey, but it also, serendipitously, brought her within steps of the person who would eventually become her husband — Mark Goldberg, MD. The lab he worked in was just down the hall.
The couple considered whether to remain in Boston or move to Toronto. Ultimately, they decided to stay in Boston and at the Brigham, where the Endocrine Hypertension Division was looking for early career physician-scientist to establish a program. Kaiser transitioned from the Division of Genetics and set up her research lab within what would later be known as the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension.
Kaiser’s lab studies how endocrine regulation — particularly, the timing of when hormones are released — influences reproduction, especially puberty and fertility. One aspect of endocrine regulation she investigates is the timing and frequency of gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) pulses — a hormone released from the hypothalamus in the brain that controls the production of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland. This particular process of hormone release can affect development, puberty, and ovulation and pregnancy.
One of the goals of Kaiser’s lab is to identify genetic mutations that can impact neuroendocrine control of reproduction. Her lab discovered mutations in a gene known as MKRN3, in which loss-of-function mutations causes central precocious puberty, which has opened new fields of investigation. They have also studied the effects of mutations in GnRH receptors and other genes in patients with hypogonadotropic hypogonadism — a condition in which GnRH and other hormones fail to stimulate the ovaries or testes, which, in turn, produce little or no sex hormones, resulting in failure to advance through puberty and infertility. Kaiser is eager for future developments within endocrine research. She predicts investigators will continue to discover new hormones in the human body. She also believes endocrinology will have a new meaning in the future.
“Endocrinology is an expansive area of medicine affecting many parts of the body,” she said. “Because of this broad, integrative definition and role, how we define endocrinology may change in the future.”
Experience as BRI Director
Due to her interests in sex differences, Kaiser became involved with the Connors Center and Women’s Health programs at the BRI and the Brigham. During that time, she became more familiar with the BRI and learned about the volunteer committees in which researchers can participate. As a member of the ROC, she learned more about the BWH research community and met other Brigham investigators whom she wouldn’t have otherwise met.
While serving in her position on the ROC, she was approached by Jackie Slavik, PhD, MMSc, executive director of the BRI, with a question – “Would you be interested in being considered for the BRI director role?” Because Kaiser’s experience on the ROC was positive, she thought, ‘Why not!’
Many responsibilities come along with the BRI director position, which has a term length of two years. When looking back at her term, Kaiser reflects positively on the rewarding aspects of her role. She especially enjoyed meeting more members of the BWH research community at faculty and trainee forums. The forums are structured so Brigham investigators can ask questions or voice concerns to the BRI Executive Committee, BWH leadership and Mass General Brigham leadership. These forums provided Kaiser with an understanding of the community’s viewpoints and specific needs, which shaped her priorities as BRI director.
Advice for the Next Generation
Kaiser has a piece of advice for those starting their careers: “Take advantage of the resources.” Brigham investigators have many resources available to them through the BRI, Office for Research Careers, and more, yet they aren’t always aware of them and don’t always utilize them to their potential.
Kaiser urges early-career investigators to connect with senior investigators, even if they’re hesitant.
“Investigators starting in their career may sometimes think senior investigators are too busy,” she said. “But they can provide a lot of knowledge and guidance you wouldn’t otherwise receive, and they are generally eager to do so! So my advice is: Reach out. Connect. You never know where those connections may lead you.”