At age 14, Katie Gross ’22 had the rare opportunity to shadow two doctors: a pulmonologist in the intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente San Rafael in San Rafael, Calif., and an orthopedic surgeon.
As a junior at St. Vincent de Paul High School, Gross began studying the Holocaust during a world history class and found herself as intrigued by history as she was by medicine. Today, Gross, a double major in biochemistry and molecular biology and history, sees connections between these disciplines that are stronger than most people realize.
“I listened to patients tell me their symptoms, their history, their story,” she recalls her experience with doctors. “As I read about Holocaust survivors, looked at 20th century Europe, and listened to survivors tell their stories, I became aware of the similarities between these two types of personal storytelling.
“Medical history is one of the most important aspects of medicine. That’s how we diagnose people. You can’t get treatment if you don’t understand the patient’s story,” says Gross. “Without history, there is no science. History is a fundamental aspect of understanding scientific mechanism.
Gross grew up on a farm in Sonoma, Calif., next door to Ann Weinstock, a Holocaust survivor who was once interviewed by Steven Spielberg.
“I remember hearing her tell a story about being a nurse in Berlin, and because she was a nurse, the Nazis saw her as beneficial,” she says. Towards the end of the war, Weinstock was sent to a concentration camp. “Ann pretended to be dead and hid in a pile of bodies that were being washed away. She slipped out of the heap and escaped.
Gross came to Clark to prepare for a career in health care, and she eventually added the history major.
In biochemistry, Gross studied with Professors Noel Lazo and Donald Spratt. She also spends 40 hours a week at UMass Chan Medical School, working in the genetics lab of 2006 Nobel Laureate Dr. Craig Mello.
In Mello’s lab, Gross helps research the inheritance of epigenetic factors using nematode worms known as C. elegans to study how behaviors and environmental factors can affect genetic function, perhaps during generations.
Gross’s research was inspired in part by a 2018 study that showed grandchildren of Holocaust survivors died prematurely from heart disease. Pyrosequencing revealed that the grandchildren had a silencer on the gene that suppresses the production of cortisol, the fight or light molecule.
“If you’re in a stressful situation, you’re going to have a fight-or-flight response, triggering an increase in cortisol, which could happen in a concentration camp,” she says.
The genetic silencer, called a methylation tag, emerged in Holocaust survivors and was passed on to their descendants, the study found.
With genetics at the heart of his studies, Gross wanted to explore the link further.
“Right now, I’m working with C. elegans and exposing them to very stressful environments. Then I do deep sequencing and see if there’s a change in their genome,” she says.
Last year, Gross was named a Goldwater Scholar in Mathematics, Science and Engineering by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.
Her major in history carries a concentration in Holocaust and Genocide studies. Gross wrote a dissertation on how anti-Semitism and gender discrimination shaped the career choices of Jewish female doctors during interwar Central Europe. It explores the lack of anti-Semitic rhetoric these women were exposed to prior to 1933 and the onslaught of persecution they faced due to their religious affiliation with Judaism after the rise of Nazism. Her mentors include professors Frances Tanzer, Nina Kushner and Amy Richter.
Gross seeks to find meaning through the patterns of suffering that have plagued humanity over the years.
“I think we repeat ourselves over and over again,” she says. “We are very cyclical animals. Understanding genocide studies, especially the Holocaust, is important to understanding our nature, our purpose, why do we do the things we do.
Gross plans to apply to a number of MD/Ph.D. programs. She has ambitions to work with patients in a clinical setting, as well as in a laboratory, overseeing the transition between drug development and delivery. She is also interested in the study of fertility, in particular the link between the germ line and offspring.