Dr. Erik von Rosenvinge, pictured above, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, is the chief of gastroenterology for the VA Maryland Health Care System. He has been the lead local investigator for a series of large multicenter studies, including one on colorectal cancer screening for Veterans, and has authored or coauthored dozens of published papers. He’s also an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and was named Faculty Teacher of the Year in the school’s division of gastroenterology and hepatology in 2018. He served in the Air Force from 1999 to 2006, reaching the rank of major, and earned multiple honors, including the Meritorious Service Medal and Aerial Achievement Medal.
What motivated you to join the military?
I have always been patriotic and felt a duty to serve my country. I also wanted to go to medical school, the cost of which seemed daunting. When I learned about the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program, I realized it provided a perfect opportunity for me to serve my country and to cover the costs of medical school.
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
My father is a physicist who spent his career at NASA, performing research on the sun, comets, and intergalactic cosmic rays. Many of his friends, and my childhood friend’s parents, were also NASA scientists. As such, science and research were frequent topics of discussion in my home and were emphasized. I attended a science and technology magnet program for high school and studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. While in college, I received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Research Fellowship and worked in the laboratory of a biochemistry professor, Dr. Richard Armstrong. In the lab, I purified and crystalized a protein so that its structure could be solved by X-ray crystallography. Seeing my efforts contribute to knowledge and result in publications was inspiring.
After serving in the Air Force, I completed a fellowship in gastroenterology and hepatology that focused on clinical research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). My mentors were Dr. Jean-Pierre Raufman at the University of Maryland and Dr. Stephen Wank at NIDDK, both true physician-scientists. Dr. Raufman, a Veteran of the U.S. Public Health Service, continues to be one of my principal mentors at the Baltimore VA and the University of Maryland.
When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.
I completed my residency in internal medicine from 1999 to 2002 at the David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in California. Today, the David Grant Medical Center is the Air Force Medical Service’s flagship medical treatment facility. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, occurred early in my third year of training. After residency, I was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where I worked in the internal medicine clinic and attended on the inpatient service. I also trained at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio and at the University of Cincinnati to become a team chief for a critical care transport team.
In this role, I deployed twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, first in late 2003-early 2004 and again in the second half of 2005. Our team’s job was to set-up a small intensive care unit in the back of Air Force cargo planes and fly critically injured and ill service members from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to higher levels of care within the theater, Germany, or the United States. Many of our patients suffered from horrible injuries, often as a result of improvised explosive devices. The dedication of our injured service member patients was inspiring. While many were unable to talk, several of those who could repeatedly asked when they could return to their unit, despite their missing limbs and other dramatic injuries. For this work, I received the Aerial Achievement Medal for sustained aerial meritorious achievement in a combat zone.
What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?
I’ve served as the local principal investigator for three studies funded by the VA Cooperative Studies Program that are focused on improving the lives of Veterans. One of the studies is completed and two are underway.
In the first study, we investigated how to best manage Veterans with acid reflux symptoms that do not respond to standard medication treatments, a common clinical problem. We found in the population studied that surgical treatments were superior to additional medication therapy.
The second study is the CONFIRM colorectal cancer screening study. In this study, we enrolled more than 50,000 Veterans from across the nation, including more than 1,000 from the Baltimore VA. These Veterans are at average risk for colorectal cancer, a leading cause of cancer deaths in Veterans. The participants were randomized to one of two standard-of-care colorectal cancer screening strategies, a colonoscopy or an annual stool test that looks for microscopic blood. We will follow the subjects for more than a decade to see which strategy is best at preventing death from colorectal cancer in Veterans.
The third study, called OpTION, is comparing treatments for a recurrent colon infection with a difficult-to-treat germ called Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. The national co-chairs for this study are Dr. Dale Gerding and Dr. Stuart Johnson, an Air Force Veteran. Both men are at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Illinois.
Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher?
My military career did inspire me to work for VA; I wanted to give back to Veterans. I was personally conflicted about separating from the military. But by working for VA, I have been able to continue my connection to the military and Veterans. This has benefited me personally.
Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?
Absolutely. In my experience, when my Veteran patients and Veteran research participants learn that I am also a Veteran and that I understand military life and jargon, it creates a closer relationship. As a Veteran, I’m committed to serving and am passionate about serving my fellow Veterans through the clinical work and research that I conduct at VA.
Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?
In the military and in research, the biggest keys to success are determination and perseverance. While being smart helps, it’s more important to keep at a task and follow through. The military will lose battles and research experiments will fail, but through determination and persistence, success will be achieved.
Read other interviews with VA Researchers Who Served.