Student Q&A: Keith Summa, Northwestern Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program

Keith Summa

Where is your hometown? 
I’m from St. Louis, Mo.  

What is your educational background?
I attended college at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where I majored in biology and English. 

What are your research interests?
I’m interested in circadian rhythms, which are our body’s natural 24-hour cycles. In particular, I want to understand what the consequences of disrupting these rhythms are in terms of overall health and disease risk. The modern society and environment we currently live in make it incredibly difficult to properly abide by these daily cycles, and we’re just beginning to understand how disrupting these rhythms, including the sleep-wake cycle, can lead to problems and abnormalities that increase susceptibility to various diseases. 

What exciting projects are you working on?
I am fortunate to be involved in several exciting projects as a member of the Fred Turek laboratory. My major focus right now concerns a long-standing and puzzling clinical question: Why do some alcoholics develop severe liver disease while others do not? We now have very exciting data from experiments in mouse models of alcoholism indicating that disruption of circadian rhythms significantly impairs the intestinal barrier, which allows leakage of proinflammatory bacterial products from the gut into the bloodstream where they can accelerate inflammation and promote liver injury. In addition, I am involved in ongoing work examining the connection between circadian rhythms and metabolism. In particular, I am conducting an experiment testing the role of feeding time in regulating body weight in mice.

What attracted you to the NUIN program?
NUIN and the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at Northwestern were very attractive to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the rigorous curriculum and strong academic foundation at Northwestern ensured that I would have the opportunity for excellent training, mentorship and scientific development. 

Northwestern has a unique and storied role in the history of the field of circadian rhythms, with a rich tradition, exceptional reputation and a dedicated faculty of experts and leaders in the field. 

Perhaps most important was the gut feeling I had during my interview and first visit to the campus that this was simply the right place for me. And finally, the appeal presented by the wonderful city of Chicago provided yet one more motivating factor for me to come here.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
I have had a number of great moments at Feinberg, but I’d say the best occurred on the first day of my surgery clerkship as a third year medical student. I assisted on a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal) and still vividly remember (what was then) my first experience in an operating room. Although this was a relatively routine procedure completed without incident, it represented my first truly authentic experience as a member of the medical team and therefore it was a momentous step in the realization of a lifelong goal of mine to enter the field of medicine. 

What do you do in your free time?
I don’t often feel that I have much free time, but I do like to explore the different neighborhoods, restaurants and opportunities of Chicago when given the chance. I play rugby for the Kellogg School of Management team, which is usually quite fun. I also enjoy cooking, hiking, and reading.

What are your plans after graduation?
I’d like to go on a nice, long trip, perhaps to New Zealand and Australia, which have long been dream destinations for me. After that, I plan on enrolling in an internal medicine residency, continuing to pursue research in circadian rhythms and hopefully contribute to the process of applying the scientific findings of the field into the realm of clinical medicine.