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Abby Cheng's Path to Leadership
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Abby Cheng's Path to Leadership


Abby Cheng, MD is an Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Washington University/ B-JH/ SLCH Consortium. She is also a graduate of the AAP's Rehabilitation Medicine Scientist Training Program (RMSTP). Discover Abby's path to leadership – in her words.


I was introduced to the word “physiatry” in my first year of medical school, and the field’s holistic approach to improving pain and quality of life resonated with me. The following summer, I participated in research on the hip-spine syndrome with Dr. Heidi Prather at Washington University in St. Louis, and by the end of the experience, I was hooked.

I joined the AAP and RMSTP in my second year of residency at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. At the AAP's Annual Meetings, I learned what a career as a physician scientist looks like and how I could make that type of career possible for myself. Through the RMSTP, I received didactic and small-group instruction from grant-funded, physiatric researchers, and I met other physiatrists at various stages of training who share my excitement for clinical research. Based on my personal research experience and the information I learned in the RSMTP, I decided to apply for NIH funding for a career development (K) award, which is a common first step to becoming an independently funded clinician scientist.

Currently, in addition to my clinical practice as a sports medicine physiatrist, I’m thankful to my department leadership to have 40% of protected time for research. My NIH grant application scored well enough to be funded, so I will transition to 75% of research time in July 2019. Despite my love for the mechanical aspect of musculoskeletal medicine, I have quickly learned that without addressing patients’ psychological impairment, they will not achieve optimal outcomes. Therefore, my primary project will focus on assessing biopsychosocial risk factors in patients with pre-arthritic hip disorders, and my long-term research goal is to approach all kinds of musculoskeletal pain with a precision medicine, biopsychosocial model in order to identify and address modifiable risk factors.

Participation in the RMSTP helped me confirm that a career as an independently funded clinician scientist is my dream job, but I would also encourage physiatrists who are still “peeking over the research fence” to apply for the program. The RMSTP equips participants with unique insight into the research process and connects people with mutual interests. These tools are valuable to all physiatrists, even those who end up deciding to focus more on clinical care. For physiatrists in training who are hoping to pursue a research career, I recommend seeking out successful research mentors who can guide you toward appropriate opportunities and advocate on your behalf. I also recommend expressing your interest to your program director and potential future employers. Communicating your career goals early can make you an attractive candidate and will help you identify institutions that understand what resources are required to facilitate your success as a clinician scientist.