ROTC Was the Ticket to College for Kyle Petersen ’90 —The Military Career that Followed was his Ticket to Help Save the World.
Kyle Petersen considers himself a detective, of sorts. As a specialist in infectious diseases, his job revolves around uncovering clues: a fever here, muscle aches there. He must use the tools at hand—microscopes, technology, his senses—to come up with a diagnosis, whether he’s working in a lab studying never-before-seen viruses in South America or consulting one-on-one with patients injured in combat.
When he answers the phone in mid-August, it’s been just a few days since the captain in the United States Navy Medical Corps and his family—wife, Catherine, and 8-year-old twin daughters, Megan and Allison—returned from living in Lima, Peru. As commanding officer of Navy Medical Research Unit No. 6, Petersen had overseen a 300-member team dedicated to detecting infectious diseases that could threaten the military and public health. NAMRU-6 developed vaccines, medications, and diagnostic tests, and created strategies for combating such scourges as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and typhoid fever.
Yesterday, he was focused on saving the world. Today, he’s readjusting to life stateside as he prepares for his new roles as internal medicine site director for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and as associate professor of medicine at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
The biotech grad, who went on to become a doctor of osteopathy and a 21-year Navy veteran, has grown accustomed to an ever-evolving adult life. That life began at WPI, where a physiology professor opened Petersen’s eyes to the world of medicine and where his involvement in the Reserve Officer Training Corps not only paid for his education, but paved the way to a colorful career. Working in the military, Petersen never knows what lies ahead. But he’s always excited to take on the next adventure.
Lure of the Lab
Petersen grew up in Stony Brook, N.Y., where his dad was a sheet metal worker and his mom worked as a librarian. Money was limited, and it was a given that he’d need financial assistance to go to his school of choice.
That school was WPI, where Petersen hoped to major in biotechnology. By enlisting in ROTC, he earned a full NROTC scholarship. At first he had his sights set on becoming a nuclear submariner, but that changed in his junior year when he took a physiology class taught by Dan Gibson. “He was one of my all-time favorite professors,” says Petersen.
In part, that was because of the “asparagus experiment.” While teaching the class about how different human bodies process the same chemical compounds in different ways, Gibson noted that Babe Ruth had once declined to eat asparagus at a party, proclaiming that it made his pee stink. Most bodies, in fact, turn asparagusic acid, found only in asparagus, into volatile sulpher componds that end up in the urine, but a small fraction don’t (there are also people who produce them but for genetic reasons can’t smell them. Gibson brought out a can of asparagus, had each student eat a spear, and soon after, visit the restroom. Their assignment was to write up their own experience and explain what it told them about their physiology.
“It was fun, bringing in that element of baseball history and actually doing the see-and-smell kind of thing. He was that kind of guy,” says Petersen. For another lab experiment, he remembers euthanizing a frog, removing its leg, applying electrodes to the sciatic nerve, and watching the neuron fire. For this biotech major, to study a body was to delve into engineering of a different sort, one filled with complex muscles and vascular structures, with nerves going everywhere.
It was that class—and, soon, another scholarship via the Navy’s Health Professions Scholarship Program—that changed his path. “That’s when I thought, ‘wow, medicine would be pretty cool,’” he says. “And that’s why I finally decided I should apply to medical school. It will be just like Gibson’s lab, I thought. I’ll be doing that all the time.”
Petersen graduated from Des Moines University in 1994 with his doctor of osteopathic medicine degree. After eight years of scholarships, he was committed to eight years in the Navy, and through those years, there wasn’t a dull moment. He interned in internal medicine at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (Va.) and then attended “dive school” at the Naval Undersea Medical Institute in Panama City, Fla., to train with enlisted Navy officers. He moved to California for his residency at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, and to train for his fellowship in infectious diseases. Over the next two years, in Puerto Rico, he alternated between working in the emergency room and spending time on the waterfront, where he had access to a hyperbaric chamber to treat divers who surfaced too quickly and got the bends (decompression sickness). But his many years in ROTC followed by military service couldn’t prepare him for what was next: serving as a doctor during wartime. When the Iraq war began in 2003, he was assigned to a hospital ship in the Persian Gulf that received marine casualties from the initial assault phase.
“It was like MASH,” he says. “There was a lot of carnage. I still have some…just bad memories. You see these young 19-, 20-year old kids blown up six ways to Sunday, and missing limbs. And when they come off the battlefield some of them are just mangled, and you have to cut off the pants or take off a boot to see what’s left. It’s really hard on your psychological well-being day in and day out.”
For years, he’d looked forward to seeing patients and saving lives. In the thick of it, he was proud to take care of the severely injured and help get them back on their feet again. But he knew, from the mental toll, this wasn’t a position he could take on long term.
Deployment was also challenging on a personal level—Kyle and Catherine had to reschedule their wedding date because he was on a ship, returning home from Iraq. A couple of years later, not long after learning she was pregnant with twins, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay for six months to provide medical attention to prisoners. When complications arose with the pregnancy, the Navy allowed him to come home. Three days later, Catherine was admitted to the hospital, and their daughters were born soon after.
As a new father, Petersen was ready to slip into a more predictable schedule. A position opened up at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Md., and he became the deputy department head for undersea medicine research. He worked with rats and pigs researching ways to mitigate decompression sickness. The Navy needed to know: if a submarine runs into a problem underwater, and more than 100 military personnel have to get to the surface quickly, how do you help them? The research brought back the basic medical science he’d learned at WPI: designing good experiments, timing the drug dosing, maintaining lab notebooks, and writing up the results. The job also gave him the mental reprieve he needed. Putting on the lab coat, he was distanced from the battlefield and the devastation of war. There was safety in the lab environment, comfort in the purity of the scientific method. In 2011 he was recommended for a post in Peru as the executive officer at an overseas Naval lab. Kyle and Catherine and their 4-year-old girls packed for an adventure in South America.
Honor, Courage, Commitment - and Mosquitos
Since 1983 the U.S. Navy has operated a regional research lab focused on tropical disease jointly with the Peruvian Navy (the Navy has similar labs in Singapore and Egypt). Petersen says it’s important to have a lab in South America because it allows scientists to learn about pathogens—including those that cause dengue fever and malaria—that can’t be easily studied in the United States because of the limited number of cases.
“You need hundreds of thousands of cases to do a clinical trial,” he says. “You can’t do a clinical trial on malaria in the U.S. because you get maybe 100 cases a year. So it was a real neat opportunity to go down there.”
By establishing these sites abroad, the Department of Defense is monitoring vulnerable areas in case of an outbreak. Rainforests and tropical areas are a particular area of concern, says Petersen, because many viruses and pathogens originate in bats and other disease vectors that live in these environments. “And now you have encroachment by loggers, oil drillers, gold miners, and others who perturb the habitat; there’s a huge potential to bring those pathogens out.”
After two years in Peru, he was promoted to commanding officer, overseeing 300 personnel. In part, his work involved screening patients and looking for new strains of dengue, malaria, and hantavirus, among other microorganisms. He focused on bringing in new
technology that improved screening capabilities. For example, he says, in the past the lab would screen for viruses using molecular biology and the polymerase chain reaction—an inexpensive technique to amplify DNA. But the success rate was only about 30 percent, so the majority of specimens came back negative. Under his leadership, the lab invested in technology that could sequence the full genome and then grow the pathogen based on that.
“In 2012–13 our lab counted 11 viruses never before described in humans.” By identifying the genes and proteins, the lab could then create the antigens and work toward producing medication and vaccines. (Vaccines work by introducing a pathogen into the system; the immune system then produces the proteins or antibodies to fight it off.) In addition, the lab has worked on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, succeeded in breeding a particular type of mosquito to perform malaria tests, and identified new strains of dengue fever.
But the memory that makes Petersen the proudest revolves around that detective work that drew him into the profession. That’s the work that the lab has done on malaria.
A couple of years ago, one of the lab’s entomologists came to Petersen and told him about the trouble she was having getting a colony of finicky anopheles mosquitoes—the females of which transmit malaria—to breed. That was a problem, because the lab infected the mosquitos with malaria and used them in research. And they needed a reliable supply of new mosquitoes.
She’d tried everything she could to put the bugs in the mood: manipulating humidity, temperature, lighting, noise level. Nothing worked.
In the absence of breeding, the lab had to capture the mosquitoes in the field using human volunteers as bait. “They’d sit there all night in a field with no bug repellant on, with one part of their body exposed, and every time a mosquito landed on them they’d suck it up with a straw and put it in a container,” says Petersen. “So it was dangerous and it was a lot of work.”
The entomologist met a scientist from Mexico at a conference who told her she was going about it all wrong. He said she needed to apply a different psychology with the insects: instead of trying to coddle and seduce the bugs, she needed to stress them out. Put them in hot, dry, uncomfortable conditions, he said. When they are facing death, the mosquitoes will breed. Intrigued, the entomologist requested funds to bring the scientist to the lab to help out.
Petersen took time to work behind the scenes, securing that funding and recruiting staff. To his delight, the experiment worked. NAMRU-6 was the first lab to start a successful breeding program with this type of mosquito. Through that program, they’re able to harvest malaria spores and send them to the United States for use in human trials, in hopes of one day creating a vaccine.
“This was the first time it had been done in the history of science,” he says. “It was a huge accomplishment for the lab. And I was really proud.”
Petersen says his ROTC experience at WPI was instrumental in helping him become a better leader. And it was his leadership skills, medical know-how, and science and research acumen that led to the position in Peru, according to Gregory Martin, MD, chief of infectious diseases —tropical medicine with the U.S. Department of State Office of Medical Services. Five years ago, when Martin was the Navy surgeon general’s specialty leader for infectious diseases, he suggested Petersen for the job.
“He was respected by the scientists because he was not just somebody who’d been stuck in charge; he could talk the talk and walk the walk,” says Martin. “He has good leadership skills, he’s a good scientist, and he’s a good physician. That combination is really important for success in that kind of high-visibility position.”
Martin first met Petersen 13 years ago, when he hired him as head of the International Travel Clinic at the National Naval Medical Center. Martin was the center’s chief of infectious diseases at the time, and Petersen had just completed his fellowship. Martin recalls being impressed by his intelligence and confidence, even at that early stage. “He has always had a different perspective on things than anyone else,” says Martin. “He looks at the world from a whole different realm.”
By the time Petersen left Peru in August 2015, he says the clinic had the highest budget of any of the seven Naval research and development labs (not including headquarters) and the most published articles. But after nine years working behind the scenes, he was ready to return to the hospital.
Looking back, Petersen says he’s loved both areas of his work: the lab and the clinic. At the same time, both came with their own challenges. When he transitioned to his lab jobs, he needed a break from the human side of medicine. Now, he’s ready for another change. He says watching budget crises and government shutdowns unfold over the last four years in the Navy was exhausting, and he’s ready for something new.
“If it wasn’t for the deployments and the wartime casualties, I would have said my favorite time was just being in a staff position at the hospital, treating patients in HIV clinics, going in and treating patients in the ward, and working with junior physicians and mentoring and teaching.” And that’s exactly what he’s returning to in his new role in Washington, D.C.
After more than two decades in service, Petersen often fantasizes about retiring. But the variety of his work and the opportunities to travel and explore keep him coming back.
“I keep saying [I’m going to retire] every three years,” he laughs. “And then the next adventure comes along.”