July 24, 2024
5 Questions for . . . Karen Jacobson

Karen Jacobson shown with colleagues George Okwakol and Claire Apayi, who conduct child neurocognitive assessments in Busia, Uganda.


COVID-19’s arrival during her medical training prompted a new direction for this Kaiser Permanente infectious disease researcher and physician

As Karen Jacobson, MD, MPH, studied global health as an undergraduate at Stanford University — and later in medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York — she had many opportunities to learn and work in Africa. These included stints in Tanzania doing HIV education and in South Africa studying tuberculosis (TB) treatment.

She planned to focus on HIV care as a researcher and physician. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and infectious disease practitioners found a brand-new field to explore. Jacobson became interested in COVID-19 infection and vaccination, and in 2023 joined the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center (VSC) as a research scientist. The VSC is part of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.

Jacobson is a board-certified infectious diseases physician, and completed a residency in internal medicine and HIV primary care at the Yale-New Haven Hospital and a fellowship in infectious diseases at Stanford.

Jacobson shared her journey and research interests in our latest Q&A.

How did you decide to become a researcher?

From the time I was in high school, I was really interested in global health and that was my major in college. It also led me to medical school with the idea of being a physician researcher. I thought that public health research and researching interventions with far-ranging effects on large groups of people were most interesting.

5 Questions for . . . Karen Jacobson
Karen Jacobson with her dog Penzi on a hike in Stanislaus National Forest.

How did you choose your study topic?

My interest in HIV research and HIV care drew me to the field of medicine because — along with being an infection and medical condition — it also brings out so many big social, political, and human rights issues in many settings. The response to the HIV pandemic had to address all of these aspects. It was fascinating as a social issue and a medical issue wrapped together.

During college and medical school, I spent time in Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, and Kenya doing clinical rotations and research on implementation of HIV and malaria prevention measures and evaluating HIV-TB treatment programs. I initially wanted to be an infectious disease physician and researcher and study HIV treatment in the U.S. and abroad. However, the HIV field really transformed during my medical training years, going from more of an infectious disease to a chronic condition, and when I started my fellowship in infectious diseases, I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on.

And then COVID happened, during the first year of my infectious diseases fellowship. COVID changed many people’s trajectories — it’s how I got involved in vaccine work and now that’s my focus.  As a health care worker, I was able to be vaccinated against COVID in December 2020, when I happened to be pregnant with my second daughter, and that opened up a whole new interest in vaccines and particularly vaccination during pregnancy.

As an infectious disease physician I am so thankful for vaccines. I’ve tried to educate my 3-year-old and my 5-year-old about them. I just took my daughter for her 3-year-old checkup, and she wasn’t due for any vaccines. She was so upset when we left without getting a shot that she cried!

What are you working on now?

At the VSC we study anything that is vaccine-preventable or potentially vaccine-preventable. I’m particularly interested in the effects of infections and vaccinations in pregnancy on mothers and infants, especially for COVID-19 and RSV. I have a career development award from NIH to study COVID and malaria infection in pregnant women and evaluate long-term developmental outcomes in infants in Uganda. I am looking at uptake of RSV vaccination in pregnant women and uptake of the monoclonal antibody to prevent RSV in infants, which is supported by a pilot grant from DOR’s Behavioral Health and Aging and Infectious Diseases Section. The VSC has important collaborations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccine effectiveness and safety, and I’m a co-investigator on some of those projects, as well as many of the clinical trials the center does.

Karen Jacobson with her husband Michael and daughters Phoebe and Eleanor.

I still get to do some global health work, including a site visit to Uganda in January for my career development award project. The work I’m doing at the VSC and Kaiser Permanente nicely complement the work I’ve been doing in Uganda. I am very appreciative that this position allows me to do both.

Do you have any advice for younger people thinking about a research career?

For medical trainees interested in a research career, I would recommend they seek out mentors in research positions beyond their immediate clinical faculty, who are likely in a university bubble. Younger fellows tell me they haven’t heard about many research opportunities outside of traditional university settings, and before I joined DOR I also didn’t know much about the possibilities. I’m really honored to be a part of the DOR and the VSC. I’ve been really impressed with everyone and the important work they do.

The other thing I’d note is that a clinical background is really helpful in research. I can understand where the data came from, and why it might be showing up certain ways from being on the other side of the electronic health record, charting in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Also, when you’re also seeing patients face-to-face, it’s easier to conceptualize larger problems and care about them.

What do you do outside of work?

If I’m honest, most days I look forward to the time when my kids are finally asleep and we can just relax on the couch and watch TV. But we also try to run and hike with the family, and bring along our yellow lab, Penzi.  We just bought a house in Oakland, so I’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for the move and getting excited about the new neighborhood.




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