In the fall of 2003, Bradford D. Pendley made a bold move to improve his research and teaching: He left a tenured, endowed position as a chemistry professor at Rhodes College in Memphis and went to medical school.
The decision to make such a radical change had been evolving since 1998, when he took a sabbatical to do research with Erno Lindner in the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Memphis. After that experience, Pendley, who trained as an electroanalytical chemist, found himself doing more and more clinically relevant research. He enjoyed using his knowledge of chemistry to address clinical problems, but he gradually realized that wasn’t enough.
“Across a several-year period, it became evident to me that I lacked the biological and medical knowledge to be able to conceive of problems in a more complete fashion,” Pendley says. “I couldn’t really solve those issues as well as I could if I were looking at them from a clinical side as well as a scientific side.”
At first, Pendley tried to fill the gap with undergraduate biology classes. He officially enrolled—for a grade—in one class per semester. But he realized he still needed more. “Medicine is one of those things where you could read all the books you want, but to understand how it’s actually practiced, you have to actually live it,” he says.
So he decided to go to medical school. For both family and professional reasons, he stayed in Memphis and attended the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. For the first year, he took a leave of absence from Rhodes so that he could continue shepherding a student through undergraduate research. The next year, Pendley resigned his position.
When he finished medical school in 2007, Pendley briefly thought of heading straight back to academia. But he realized such a move would negate his purpose in studying medicine in the first place. “The ability to understand a problem from the clinical side doesn’t come from something that you just learned in medical school,” he says. “You really have to be in the field to practice and say, ‘Here’s a need that I think I can address.’ ”
Now, Pendley is an internal medicine specialist at Primary Care Specialists in Memphis. He’s also recently moved back into academia as an affiliated professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Memphis, a move supported by his medical practice. He plans to split his time between medicine and teaching.
He also hopes to ramp up his research, again working with Lindner, his friend and colleague. He expects that his medical training will guide his research.
“I’m interested in measurements,” he says. “I look in clinical practice for opportunities to make meaningful measurements. That’s where my clinical hat is really useful. Will physicians use this if I were to develop a tool? Are there tools that exist and I’m trying to make a better one? Or are there no tools, and we really want to measure this but we can’t?”
Pendley also expects his medical training to inform his teaching. Even when he was teaching at Rhodes, Pendley started incorporating things he was learning in those undergrad biology classes into his chemistry teaching. For example, he knew that biology students were learning about the Goldman equation, which is used to describe the equilibrium potential across a cell membrane.
“The Goldman equation is just a Nernst equation under particular circumstances,” Pendley says. In physiological contexts, the Nernst equation describes the equilibrium voltage across the cell membrane for a particular ion. Pendley used it to explain the origin of action potentials to his students. Action potentials, which underlie cellular communication in the brain, are events in which the voltage across a cell membrane rapidly rises and falls as a result of changes in how easy it is for ions to cross the membrane.
In his new academic position, Pendley won’t teach his first class until next semester. In the meantime, he’s been developing two new undergraduate courses. One is a course in medical physiology for engineering students.
The other will combine physics, chemistry, math, and biology with clinical applications. For years, Pendley has wanted to develop such an integrated course. Now the time is right. It dovetails with the competency-based approach advocated in the report “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians,” which was released by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in 2009, and with the revised Medical College Admission Test, which will be administered for the first time in 2015.
“I am explicitly using the goals articulated by AAMC/HHMI in the creation of the course,” Pendley says. It’s slated to be a one-semester junior- and senior-level elective course, but its modular design could allow some of the material to be incorporated into earlier required courses. The biomedical engineering course will be cross-listed in the chemistry department.
“I’m really fortunate that my practice and my university have given me this opportunity. I’m looking forward to getting back in the classroom,” Pendley says. He believes that his experience makes him uniquely qualified to help guide aspiring physicians. “I’m a real believer in the model of a scientist who is a physician. If you understand basic principles of science and how they are applied, it really helps you in the practice of medicine. I’m a chemist who happens to be a physician.”