Embracing Uncertainty

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By Helen Corning

Embracing Uncertainty Katharine P. Callahan, MD, MSME Parents who learn that their newborn baby has a serious medical condition are immediately consumed with questions. Why did this happen? What is the right plan of care, now and in the days and weeks ahead? What will the future look like for my child, my family? Increasingly today, doctors look to genetic testing for information that can help shape answers.

Genetic tests yield previously unimaginable depths of information that can guide care decisions and help families plan for the future. But those same tests can also unearth findings that no one — clinicians or families — is yet certain how to use.

It’s complicated

This is the world of Katharine P. Callahan, MD, MSME, a neonatologist and ethicist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Caring for patients in CHOP’s Harriet and Ronald Lassin Newborn/Infant Intensive Care Unit (N/IICU), Dr. Callahan sees firsthand both the promise and the uncertainty of genetic testing. Her research focuses on how genetic information is currently used to care for critically ill newborns, and how that process can be improved. How large amounts of data should — and shouldn’t — inform some of life’s biggest decisions.

“The learning from these tests is complex, not straightforward,” says Dr. Callahan. “The findings may be unexpected or not align neatly with the questions they were intended to answer. I want to explore how we use genetic information in ways that are meaningful to both the clinical team and the child’s family.”

Ultimately, Dr. Callahan hopes to develop better tools to help doctors guide families as they unravel the mysteries of the gene.

Young pioneers

Wunderkind It’s this groundbreaking work for which Dr. Callahan was named a 2023 STAT Wunderkind. Chosen by the respected health and science news outlet STAT from hundreds of nominees across the nation, the Wunderkind awards recognize early-career scientists who are making transformative contributions in biomedical research.

Dr. Callahan says the award is particularly meaningful because it highlights the enormous investment CHOP makes in supporting visionary young researchers with potentially breakthrough innovations. For her, these big ideas are inspired by the tiny patients she cares for daily in the N/IICU. “I’m a neonatologist,” she says simply. “All of my good ideas have come from taking care of babies.”