Kay Everett

Teaching a class she once studied keeps her focused in other areas of her professional life

Mindy Blodgett | HST

MIT lecturer; Attending Cardiologist, Tufts Medical Center; Assistant Professor of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine; research scientist—Kay D. Everett, Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) MD and Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) PhD alum, wears many hats. But one of her most cherished roles is as one of the instructors of the HST.090 Cardiovascular Pathophysiology class, a foundational class required for all HST MD and MEMP PhD students.

“I really enjoy the teaching side of my career,” says Everett, HST MEMP PhD ‘13, HST MD ’16. “I enjoy speaking to the students in the language of what I do every day, as a clinician, and in the lab—and the HST students are right there with me…I love it when the students get an ‘aha moment’, when the course work crystalizes and makes sense. Being in the classroom and working with the students keeps me on my toes in all the other areas of my career.”

Collin M. Stultz, the Nina T. and Robert H. Rubin Professor in Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, and the co-director of HST, says, “Dr. Everett typifies the type of physician-scientist that our program aspires to create. Not only is she a gifted scholar, but she is an exceptional lecturer who has made indelible contributions to the Cardiovascular Pathophysiology course in the HST curriculum.”

Everett shuttles between her teaching duties (she teaches the cardiovascular pathophysiology course at Tufts as well), and her research in the Navin Kapur Lab at Tufts Medical Center within the Tufts Molecular Cardiology Research Institute (MCRI)—juggling these roles with clinical time with patients. She says that she currently spends a total of six weeks out of the year at the hospital, a balance she calls “perfect”, because “it gives me a lot of protected time for research…but still gives me the patient interaction that I am happy to have.”

Everett, who is an MIT SB ’07 graduate in materials science and engineering, grew up in a small town in Florida. While she had always loved math and science, she remembers that her high school counselor was shocked when she mentioned her interest in applying to MIT. The counselor advised her that “MIT was too ambitious…when I got in, I’m pretty sure I was the first person from my high school to ever go to MIT.”

Once she was at MIT, she said it wasn’t immediately clear that she would want a career that married medicine and engineering. “I had bought into the stereotype that you can’t be good at math and science and good with people too,” she says. It wasn’t until she was in the HST MEMP PhD program, taking the Introduction to Clinical Medicine at Mt. Auburn Hospital, that she decided that she loved working with patients, and therefore, that she wanted to earn an MD as well as a PhD. “It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be good at clinical work. I thought I could meet my goals by being in the lab—but I found that I really enjoyed the patient-physician relationship too.” During her time as an HST student, she joined the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center (the lab led by Elazer R. Edelman, the director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, a cardiac intensive care unit cardiologist, and an HST alum—IMES is HST’s home at MIT).

“The first time I had ever seen a patient was when I was in my fourth year, at Mt. Auburn Hospital, and was doing the clinical rotation that is part of the HST program. It was the deciding factor in my decision to go to medical school,” Everett remembers.

When in the lab, her research is focused on cardiovascular hemodynamics, investigating how the heart supplies and propels the blood flow throughout the body. Everett is particularly interested in how the body responds to the artificial heart pumps typically used to treat patients in cardiac distress, saying, “It’s fascinating to me that people are living through conditions that used to be highly mortal.” She says that she finds it highly rewarding to be able to study physiology and medical devices in the lab—and then to be able to translate this research into treatments at the hospital when she is mentoring patients and their families.

One such moment of translational medicine came recently, when she said she was researching devices in large animals. “We were studying myocardial infarction, putting a heart pump into an animal in our preclinical lab, studying the effect on the heart, and then, on the same day, I did the exact same thing for a patient,” she says. “I was able to use research and my clinical brain in the same building, in the same hospital. It was an eye-opening experience giving me great insight into how the devices work with physiology.”

Everett says that early on in her graduate career, she was struck by the lack of women in some of the fields she became interested in. “MIT was about 50-50 in terms of gender when I arrived as an undergraduate,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was in grad school that that dropped down to more like 30 percent women.” A seminal moment for her came in 2005, when Larry Summers, who was then the president at Harvard University, made a controversial statement to the effect that the inadequate representation of women at the highest levels of academic science, might be due to "issues of intrinsic aptitude,” and that there are innate differences between men and women, in terms of mathematical and scientific interest and ability.

There were subsequent debates about what his comments—for which he later apologized—actually meant, but the ensuing outcry led to the formation of the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE), a mentoring and networking organization. Everett said that she saw a need for a similar group at MIT, and so she and some fellow female graduate students started the GW@MIT (Graduate Womxn at MIT, aimed at women and women-identified persons) group in 2009. She adds that she is pleased that the organization “is still going strong.”

“I’m really passionate about the need for more women in medicine and science,” she says. “There are still a lot of goals in certain specializations in medicine that need to improve, for instance, only 14 percent of cardiologists are female…I hope that some of the students coming through see me and know that the path I’ve taken, that of physician-scientist, is available to them too.”

She says that today’s HST students, compared to her own cohort, “are even more interested in applying science and to having a positive impact on our global community—they want to have a meaningful impact on medicine and patients. It’s beautiful to see.”

Now, Everett says that while she is proud of her accomplishments, and has worked hard to get where she is, she is excited by the future—and that her ultimate goal is to start her own lab, and to become a full professor. “I feel very fortunate to have found the path I’m on,” she says. “I’ve been so privileged to have the opportunities I’ve had and I’m just excited to see where it all takes me.”