Voices of HMSOM: The Clinical Pathologist Who Helps Other Doctors Learn
March 05, 2021
Yellow, orange, red, and pink. The core pieces of medical knowledge were written on the variegated slips of paper. Jennifer Zepf, D.O., and colleagues from the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine would rearrange them again and again on the wall, helping to piece together the beginnings of a new institution to mint new doctors.
“We had written core pieces of medical knowledge on different colored Post-its and rearranged them endlessly on the wall to find the right sequence. It was like one big curricular puzzle,” Zepf recalls. “It wasn’t just rewarding work – it was fun.”
Zepf is an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Sciences. But she seems to have a hand in almost all parts of the medical education curriculum at the School. She’s a past Clinical Director of the inaugural Molecular and Cellular Principles course, and the current director of The Developing Human course. She also leads the integration of pathology and laboratory medicine content within the SOM’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 curriculum.
Since 2017, she’s seen the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine all come together – as well as the first classes of students forge the foundations of their medical careers.
“Having started here in 2017 it is incredibly fulfilling to now see students enter clerkships and hear the feedback about the outstanding work they are doing,” said Zepf recently. “It makes my day each time I hear from my clinical colleagues, often unprompted, about how impressive our students are jumping into all aspects of clinical care with confidence and enthusiasm.”
“Jennifer’s dedication to teaching is inspirational to all of us—the students, the teaching staff, the Cabinet members – and me!” said Bonita Stanton, M.D., the founding dean of the School. “She is a very clear thinker, deeply committed to teaching and presentation – but all with a sense of humor and warmth. She is a true professional, and a valued member of our team.”
Zepf did not envision herself doing this – she came to the practice of training doctors through natural career development.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, she received her undergraduate degree from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. She pursued her medical degree at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine immediately after undergraduate years, thinking mostly of entering a primary care specialty. But as she went through medical school and during her clerkships, she discovered a love of pathology. She had great educators as her attending physicians in Surgery and Obstetrics-Gynecology who encouraged the student Zepf to accompany specimens to the path department and discuss the findings with the pathologists.
Zepf then trained at Weill Cornell New York Presbyterian in Clinical Pathology. Clinical pathology, also known as Laboratory Medicine, focuses on the diagnosis of disease through the laboratory, and clinical pathologists oversee labs and all manner of diagnostic testing employed in all types of patient care.
“As an academic focused specialty, Pathology really lends itself to teaching which is why pathologists are sometimes referred to as the ‘Doctor’s doctor,’” said Zepf. “I think this is one of the main reasons why I chose this specialty and why I sought out opportunities to teach more. For example, at the end of my residency when I was invited to remain an additional year and serve as Chief Resident, I eagerly accepted the invitation – both because it is such a compliment and because it meant a year in large measure focused on teaching the residents and medical students.
“It was in this role that I realized that teaching others and advancing patient care through education was really where I felt most fulfilled,” Zepf added.
Right now, her research interest is aimed at innovation in medical education – particularly how and where laboratory medicine can be integrated in curricula, and outcomes of those interventions.
Her objective: to show the importance of the laboratory in treating patients by incorporating specific lab medicine curricula to improve a physician’s ability to understand diagnostic testing, and also to leverage the laboratory in the care of patients.
But her ultimate mission right now is focused on the students of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. She sees the institution as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which struck her from the first time she met Founding Dean Bonita Stanton, and learned her vision for the medical curriculum.
“I want to improve patient care by helping medical students become excellent physicians,” said Zepf. “It has been a privilege to work with the first three cohorts of HMH SOM students!”
Her life outside the School is devoted to family. She grew up in a big Midwestern family, as did her husband. The distance can be hard, but they love the Northeast and she and her family (including a two year old and a four month old) just moved to a new house in the area. A busy career and parenting two small children take up almost all the waking hours right now.
“Chasing the two little ones around is my main hobby these days! But I also love interior décor so I can’t wait to decorate our new house,” said Zepf.