Runge connects past with present

John Runge, a PhD student in Genetics and Molecular Biology, shares his thoughts on how studying the history of medicine can help inform today's researchers.

Runge connects past with present click to enlarge John Runge/Photo by Max Englund, UNC Health Care

By Jamie Williams - jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

In a series of emails published in the summer of 2014, Dr. Billy Fischer wrote his family that despite all the work he and his colleagues were doing to fight Ebola in Gueckedou, Guinea, he wished he could do more.

John Runge, a PhD student in genetics and molecular biology with a passion for the history of medicine, recognized the sentiment immediately. Fischer’s emails reminded Runge of  primary sources he’d encountered while working on a paper on the Yellow Fever outbreak that ravaged the reconstruction-era South.

In his paper, Runge quotes Dr. William Armstrong writing to his wife from Memphis in the summer of 1878: “Death is coming upon the sick in spite of all that I can do.”

Across nearly 150 years and in spite of seismic advances in medical technology, the feelings expressed by the two physicians are incredibly similar.

“The whole point of the research we do in the history of medicine is to discover truths that span different times and places,” Runge said. “Here was a perfect example.”

Runge’s primary work at the UNC School of Medicine occurs in the lab of Department of Genetics chair Terry Magnuson, PhD. The lab studies chromatin – a condensed form of DNA – and the enzymes that regulate it.

Although the lab’s research is engrossing, history remains an active side passion for Runge, who was recently honored by the Bullitt History of Medicine Club with its McLendon-Thomas Award, given annually for the best unpublished essay on a historical topic in the health sciences. The essay contest is open to all current medical, dental, pharmacy, nursing, public health, or allied health sciences students at UNC.

Runge’s paper, “Character Trials: Managing Epidemic Disease in the 19th Century American South,” chronicles the effort to contain the spread of Yellow Fever across the Reconstruction-era South, drawing parallels to both the HIV/AIDS and Ebola outbreaks. Runge will deliver a lecture on his paper at the Bullitt Club’s March 24 meeting.

For the last year, Runge has also served as editor-in-chief of Historia Medicinae, a graduate student-run journal that, according to its mission statement, “aspires to bring together both graduate students and junior faculty from diverse disciplines through shared topics of history and health.”

Runge’s vision for the journal was to place research discoveries in historical context while also pushing contributors to think about how their work may be relevant to audiences that aren’t immediately obvious.

“Once you’ve invested so much time into a particular project, it’s important to come out on the other side and be able to say, ‘Here’s what I found and here’s why it’s relevant to you, you and you,’” Runge said.

That focus includes audiences outside of the scientific community who may ultimately benefit from the work.

“I really feel like it’s our duty since we get National Institute of Health (NIH) funding and the NIH gets its money from tax payers,” Runge said. “We have a responsibility to return that investment in an understandable and beneficial way. I should be able to talk to anyone about what chromatin is and why it matters so much.”

With all his diverse interests and responsibilities, Runge isn’t quite ready to pin himself down when it comes to future plans.

No matter where he goes next, though, history will help guide his work.

“I’m interested in looking back at the decisions that someone made at a given time and in thinking about why they made those decisions,” Runge said. “I find that more interesting a lot of the time than what was actually discovered.”

“It’s a total cliché, but the hope is that you can learn from the past and use that information to make better decisions.”

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