“When I was very young, I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau,” says Michael Gleeson. “Later in life, I realized what I really wanted to be was Steve Zissou.” It’s a joke, of course, because Gleeson is nothing like Zissou, a sour, washed-up oceanographic explorer played by Bill Murray in a 2004 comedy. Gleeson is funny, though, and a Navy veteran and MD-PhD graduate of the Geisel School of Medicine. This summer, he’ll complete his gastroenterology fellowship at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and begin his career as a physician-scientist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., serving as a hepatologist responsible for the liver health of 14,000 patients.
A love for the oceans led Gleeson to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he thrived—until he was struck with reactive arthritis halfway through his education. “I was nearly kicked out,” he says, because his feet and knees were too swollen to march. Ineligible for special operations, which he had hoped to pursue, Gleeson became an oceanographer and meteorologist for the Navy.
His illness also introduced him to the world of health care and immunology.
“I had some bad experiences with doctors who couldn’t explain to me what was going on in my body,” says Gleeson. “They just knew to throw some medicines at me. That was a rude awakening to how little we understand about how the immune system works.”
When Gleeson had fulfilled his service to the Navy, he decided to pursue medicine and immunology. He landed well, in the lab of Geisel immunologist Randy Noelle, PhD, studying the roles of T cells and B cells in cancer and autoimmune diseases. Gleeson’s physical health improved, too, thanks to expert care and new medications he received at the White River Junction VA.
“I went from hobbling on stairwells to racing a half-ironman the summer right before my first daughter was born,” he says.
When it came time to choose a medical specialty, gastroenterology stood out. “It’s pretty clear that peripheral immunity and so much of the body is regulated by processes in the gut,” he explains.
Now, as he prepares to launch his career as a physician-scientist, he’s delighted to be starting at the VA, where 20% of his time will be devoted to research. He’s not sure exactly what shape his research career will take, but he’s grateful for how his PhD in immunology informs his clinical practice.
“I have a deeper understanding of pathophysiology and can think about diseases in different ways,” he explains. “I wouldn’t trade my experience, that learning, for anything.”
Not even a chance to be the next Jacques Cousteau.