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M. Elle Saine: Murder Mysteries, 9/11, and the Epidemiologist’s Toolbox

M. Elle Saine: Murder Mysteries, 9/11, and the Epidemiologist’s Toolbox

Hometown: Lives in Philly’s Manayunk neighborhood and considers it her home town.

Education: BA in Anthropology: Human Biology Tract, Temple University
MA in Skeletal Biology, New York University
Pursuing MD and PhD in Epidemiology

How murder mysteries inspired her early interests: I’ve been fascinated by forensics for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my mom wrote murder mysteries. I was sick a lot, and when I stayed home, we watched true crime shows and she shared stories about her research. When I got older, I wanted to investigate human rights violations and genocides, and help to identify remains and return them to families for burial. I see myself engaging in humanitarian outreach when I become a physician.

Her connection to 9/11: During my master’s studies a decade after the tragedy, I interned with the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I spent a couple weeks one summer helping prepare unidentified remains from the World Trade Center for analysis with a new DNA method. It is still surreal to think about.

The remains were in white tents within a warehouse-like building. There was so much white, between the tents and the body bags. It was pristine and cold, even in August. I had a very small role, but I got to know archaeologists who still were excavating and the scientists who had prepared every round of DNA resequencing. These individuals were the guardians of the remains, dedicated to helping families and friends get a small piece of closure.

Her inspiration for med school: For the second part of that internship, I worked with forensic pathologists. I accompanied one to testify in court, and I could see how much her work meant to the parents of the victim. I began thinking of becoming a forensic pathologist and anthropologist.

Then last year, I was on a Medicine Service at HUP; I had been there for less than a week when I knew that I would go into medicine. I love working with patients and their families in the hospital; there is nothing so fulfilling as knowing that during one of the hardest moments someone will ever face, you can do something to make it a little easier.

Her Leonard Davis Institute pilot grant and why she’s in epi: Through my grant, I am evaluating a scale for measuring how patients with HIV perceive stigma and modifying (and hopefully validating) it for patients with hepatitis C. I was inspired by my work with [Associate Professor] Vin Lo Re, [Professor] Fran Barg, and [Associate Professor] Robert Gross, about the experiences of people who have only hepatitis C vs. those of people who have both hepatitis C and HIV. I am fascinated with how we can measure stigma—something so important to people’s lives, yet so intangible.

I love the endless diversity of questions that epidemiology can investigate. When people ask what the field is, I tell them any medical research involving people that doesn’t take place in a lab likely contains an aspect of epidemiology.

Over time, my toolbox has gotten a lot bigger. When I think of my future, I see myself as an anthropologist with large sample sizes.

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