VP&S Class of 2019: Max McClure
Most medical students who conduct research do not spend their days on an island just a short drive from the beach.
And to be fair, when Max McClure, MD, MS’19, went to Block Island in the summer of 2017, he spent most of his time inland, dragging a big square of white corduroy through the underbrush, flipping it over every so often to count the ticks attached to it.
The work was just one part of McClure’s master’s thesis on ticks and Lyme disease ecology that he conducted under the supervision of Maria Diuk-Wasser, PhD, associate professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia. He also collected ticks in Connecticut, conducted infection experiments, and created computational models of tick decision-making.
McClure is far from squeamish about getting up close and personal with ticks. In fact, he’s downright animated about their research potential.
“Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States,” says McClure. “The spread of ticks is related to climate change and hits close to home for many Americans. Lyme disease is also where a lot of questions about disease epidemiology are being hammered out.”
McClure’s interest in ticks and Lyme disease stems from his interest in disease ecology, a field that studies host and pathogen interactions in the context of their environment and evolution. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in biology, McClure worked as a science reporter for the Stanford News Service, and his interest in the field increased after he reported on the work of a leading disease ecologist at the university.
At the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S), McClure found a place where he could continue exploring disease ecology and learn medicine. He decided to pursue the MD-MS in Biomedical Sciences, a program designed for students to develop a research interest and perform a year of original research in a medically relevant field.
McClure has published two papers with Diuk-Wasser on tick research. For one published in the International Journal for Parasitology, they put together a model of how different climates might affect the strategy that ticks use to find their hosts. They predicted that ticks from more humid environments, such as Block Island, would have greater success at finding hosts than those from drier areas, such as the mainland Northeast. As ticks adapted to one kind of climate migrated to new habitats, however, they found that their original strategies may have placed them at a disadvantage. He recently presented some of their findings at the 2019 VP&S Student Research Day, where he won first place in basic science for a research year project.
He hopes to continue research in disease ecology but for now his attention is focused on a return to Stanford University for a residency in internal medicine.
McClure’s father, Thomas, an occupational medicine physician who prevents and treats diseases and injuries of workers in the workplace, had a big influence on his career choice.
“I had a lot of exposure to my dad’s work when I was growing up,” says McClure. “It was easy to see how medicine could help people. Internal medicine appeals to me now because it’s also at the intersection of biological factors, psychological experiences, and social context.”
His participation in Columbia Student Medical Outreach, one of Columbia’s student-run clinics, helped to develop his clinical interests.
At the clinic, McClure provided behavioral health care. “I was with the same patient for one year,” he says. “This patient had major depression that was improved through talk therapy. Being there and speaking with a patient for a longer time than when I’m in the wards was a rewarding way to connect with and see the results of my work.”
“I’m looking forward to returning home to California and putting my medical skills to use for the greater good of my future patients,” he adds. “I think health care is a human right and contributing to the provision of that right is an exciting opportunity.”