Voices of HMSOM: Elizabeth Titova, a Student Who Came Across the Skybridge from the CDI
October 05, 2023
Elizabeth Titova knew she wanted to get involved in health, and the science of health, from an early age.
The crucible of the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated that drive for the new Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine (HMSOM) student.
In the spring of 2021, she started as a research coordinator at the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI), amid the specter of waves of SARS-CoV-2 circulating across the world. Within days of taking on her new role, she was making a difference in the public health crisis of our time, running samples to track variants and better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus. For more than two years she was a pivotal player in a series of studies by CDI scientists which helped better the science of the evolving pandemic.
But amid her involvement in that study, she found she also wanted to play a more direct part in human health - right on the front lines.
Now she is part of the latest cohort at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine (HMSOM), just across the skybridge on the same campus as the CDI.
“I saw how providers were taking a step further,” said Titova recently, upon starting her pursuit of the medical degree. “I want to be that provider.”
“Elizabeth is a unique student,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., the president and dean of HMSOM. “We’re really glad to welcome her right across the skybridge, where she can expand her already exceptional skills.”
“Elizabeth came in as a research coordinator and proved to be a self-starter - and a terrific partner in much of the COVID-19 science we did here at the CDI,” said David Perlin, Ph.D., chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the CDI. “We are glad to see her take the next step in her career - and we look forward to partnering with her in the future.”
AN ASPIRING VET
Titova had early aspirations to become a veterinarian, mostly from a love of animals since she was a child. To that end, she pursued a degree in Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. She was busy in campus life there, including an activities coordinator for the Veterinary Science Club and in other clubs and even a fraternity.
But along the way, a part-time job caused her to re-think what she could do professionally: an entry-level role at a primary care doctor’s office in Edgewater, close to home. Her experiences there showed her that she lived for helping other people - that “interpersonal connection” she forged with others who come to her in need. Working as a patient care manager and a medical assistant, she helped develop and implement policies to help improve the quality of care, assisted the physician in initial screenings for needs, and helped to restructure the organization of the office.
Formative experiences abounded. She recalls especially a time when the doctor met with a longtime patient who was experiencing chest pain. The doctor skilfully talked to the patient, who believed the patient was having a heart attack. Because the clinicians knew the person so well, they eventually determined - together - that the pressure on the chest was muscle pain and a combination of other factors, including stress. To Titova, this was like watching magic happen.
“He took the time to connect - he knew the patient so well,” she recalls now. “That was very pivotal to me - it wasn’t just diagnosis - it was meeting the patient where they’re coming from. Humanism is essential to being a doctor.”
She earned her Rutgers degree in the spring of 2020. By then, the world had changed with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. She knew she had to get involved in the public health response.
She started at the CDI in May 2021. Her title was clinical research coordinator and research study technician, working with the laboratories of both Perlin and Barry Kreiswirth, Ph.D., another CDI member. But Titova’s role grew every day - and a lot through her own initiative.
“When I came to the CDI, it was a game changer for me,” she says now.
She was in the mix seemingly everywhere: conducting weekly screenings of COVID-19-positive nasopharyngeal swabs for variants; coordinating and conducting clinical studies on the virus; writing and preparing protocols for Institutional Review Board approval; culturing cell lines and propagating the prevailing COVID variants in a high containment lab in collaboration with a pharmaceutical company; running ELISA assays to quantify neutralizing antibody titers in collaboration with Quest Diagnostics; and presenting posters at major microbiology conferences, among other accomplishments.
She was even interviewed on by a New York television station, as part of her COVID work at the CDI.
But it wasn’t just COVID - she also worked with experts in oncology, dermatology, rheumatology, urology, nephrology, and genetics, with some access to the clinical setting across the Hackensack Meridian Health network.
It all helped her refine her career trajectory.
“It all further confirmed I wanted to do clinical work,” she said.
TOWARD THE FUTURE
Titova has started her HMSOM studies. In July it was the White Coat Ceremony and the Human Dimension Immersion and Orientation week happenings, and the beginning of the classes which will challenge Titova and the group of more than 160 other students. Exams start in September, and she is already participating in the formative meetings of the Human Dimension program. She is embracing it all, she reports.
Meanwhile, her work at the CDI continues to get accolades and publications, including an extensive recent one in the journal Viruses with colleagues from the CDI. She keeps pushing forward on as much of the work as she can, even though she’s pursuing her MD as her primary goal.
But she is also keeping a balance with home and personal life. She grew up in Fort Lee, first-generation of a family that emigrated from the former Soviet Union. She spends her free time cooking and trying new recipes, both new ones from Mediterranean traditions, and the blintzes and other offerings that have come down through the family. An avid volleyball player through high school, she plans to take part in some matches as a break from busy academic times. Overall, she aims to have a balance even as he pursues her dream of becoming a doctor and scientist making people better as a vocation.
“I’m exactly where I want to be, doing what I need to do,” she said recently. “I am getting to live my dream.”