Student profile: Gordon Watt (Brownsville campus, PhD)

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Gordon Watt, PhD 

Originally a business major, Gordon Watt changed direction after an undergraduate internship with the Texas State Department of Health Services, and a summer spent in Brownsville under the mentorship of epidemiologist Susan Fisher Hoch, MD. Studying hepatitis C in South Texas opened his eyes to the potential of public health as a career path. With Fisher-Hoch’s encouragement, he pursued his doctorate in epidemiology and went on to play an integral role in her liver studies in Mexican Americans living along the Texas-Mexico border.

Watt graduates with his PhD in August, and this fall, starts a postdoctoral fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, focusing on using imaging to predict breast cancer risk. He plans to continue investigating cancers related to obesity and diabetes as a career, and credits his training at UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville for giving him a solid foundation in epidemiology and cancers affecting underserved populations.

What led you to public health?

I started at The University of Texas at Austin studying business, but I didn’t take to it. I was, however, interested in the public health system and how it was designed. I took some public health courses and also worked with the Texas Department of State Health Services on a project comparing the rates of tuberculosis cases in Texas with counties along the border. Then, I interned with Fisher-Hoch in Brownsville. Both experiences reinforced my interest in public health, and epidemiology in particular. I wasn’t drawn to medicine. But I liked the quantitative nature of public health, and the interplay between academia and health. When done well, public health research can positively impact many people. That pushed me to focus on research and then earn my PhD.

What are some highlights of your education?

The Brownsville campus’s close connection between research and community practice and access to the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort (a registry established in 2004 of more than 4,500 Mexican Americans living on the Texas-Mexico border). We have always had primary data to work with, which is the best-case scenario in terms of PhD research. I also enjoyed working at MD Anderson Cancer Center last summer, studying biomarkers for liver cancer, as part of a research fellowship.

CCHC research team
Watt and the CCHC research team.

What did you enjoy most about the Brownsville campus?

I am from Maryland originally. I had never even heard about Brownsville before I moved to Texas. But, it has been a great place to earn a PhD. I appreciate being in a smaller city so closely aligned to community health projects, and seeing the implications of our research quickly translated into community health. It feels like the campus is part of the community. Working with Fisher-Hoch has also been an invaluable experience. She’s had an incredible career, from tracking Ebola in Africa to disease along the Texas-Mexico border. She has the on-the-ground knowledge of how epidemiology works. And she’s very good at pushing students to start doing their own research, and how to get a study off the ground. She’s been a wonderful mentor.

Tell us about your research

I have studied liver disease in Mexican Americans living along the Texas-Mexico border, which is closely associated with the obesity epidemic. We study a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which occurs when too much fat builds up in liver cells, inflaming and damaging the liver. There’s still a lot of active research about the actual mechanism involved in NAFLD. The challenge is understanding who is at risk, so that the disease can be prevented before it leads to fibrosis and liver cancer.

I worked on analysis for a study using a new portable imaging technology, called elastography, to measure liver fibrosis, which can lead to liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. This technique can be done in a home or office setting, compared to the more invasive liver biopsy, which must be performed in a medical facility and carries some risk. We found a much higher prevalence of fibrosis in the Mexican American population in South Texas compared to European and Asian populations, which confirmed what we had suspected from our previous studies. My dissertation also uses elastography to explore the genetic and clinical characteristics of liver disease in Mexican Americans in South Texas.

We’re excited about this technology, and hope it gains traction as an early detection method for liver fibrosis. Before this technology, you couldn’t reliably stage a liver without a liver biopsy. This is the first study where it has been used to measure the burden of liver fibrosis in the population. Most people that had liver fibrosis were not aware that they had liver disease.

What are your future plans?

I would like to have my own research program focusing on cancer related to obesity and diabetes. These cancers have increased in prevalence, while all others are declining. Addressing these rising rates will be a major challenge for cancer scientists. During my time in Brownsville, I was also really taken with the school’s emphasis on community outreach. I’d like to work to prevent disease in the communities that are most affected.