Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD: Never too Busy to be Fit

Jan 02, 2014 at 05:31 pm by Staff

Hartmann describes herself as a wife, mother of four, die-hard researcher, teacher and mentor, blogger, and … by her own definition … a fitness freak.

Her day job, make that jobs, include serving as associate dean for Clinical and Translational Scientist Development and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, as well as deputy director of Vanderbilt’s Institute for Medicine and Public Health where she oversees production of the biennial Women’s Health Report Card. Hartmann is also an adjunct professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Meharry Medical College.

Growing up in south Florida, her introduction to medicine, as is often the case, first came as a patient. “I remember thinking how amazing it was how they can put people back together,” she recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I think I can do that.’”

She earned her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University’s prestigious Writing Seminars department and then went on to earn a master’s in the same field. Naturally, her college friends thought of her as a writer. She recalled they assumed it was a “gag” when the list was published of acceptances to the medical school. After earning her medical degree from Johns Hopkins, she served as OB/GYN administrative chief resident at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine where she also completed her doctorate in epidemiology and served as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar.  

Hartmann’s undergraduate experience made her conscious and thoughtful about why and how people write. Although her friends might not have seen the immediate connection, it is an integral part of her medical career.“We write to explain, convince … write to best convey ideas and to clear a way for others,” she said. “Vanderbilt invests a lot in early career interests and encourages students to pursue excellence, as well as create a bridge between what is learned in research and how to make it applicable to human health so writing is always involved. I still consider myself a writer.”

Hartmann has mentored hundreds of students and currently has more than 20 students she advises and consults with regularly. With her emphasis on developing translational scientists, she noted, “It is such fun to sit in a studio group with the students to determine and confirm how we should go the next mile.” Hartmann added science is only as effective as the ability to translate an idea from discovery to an applicable tools. “We are constantly pushing to take the process from discovery to practice.” Her students work to move their research from bench to bedside. “This is what we all thought we were going into when we went into ‘practice,’” she observed.

Since 1999, Hartmann has been a senior investigator with Right from the Start (RFTS) and is now primary investigator of the cluster of RFTS grants, which examine risks for adverse pregnancy outcomes such as miscarriage, spontaneous preterm birth, and growth restriction. In this cohort, exposures addressed have ranged from caffeine and prenatal vitamin use to chlorinating by-products in water and environmental xenoestrogens like phthalates. A wealth of data is now available with information continuing to be added. Hartmann and RFTS investigators plan to expand the research into areas of maternal and infant genetic markers and nutrition that includes moving into research observation of early childhood development and health status. This cohort could provide a new vehicle to discover subtle influences on brain and neurological development and identify potential targets for preventive interventions that would lower the risk of prematurity and resulting disabilities.

With her background, it was natural for Hartmann to spearhead the biennial Tennessee Women’s Health Report Card. That work actually led to a big transition in her own life. “A couple of years ago, I was looking at the report and realized how I was unfit, overweight, and teetering on developing diabetes,” she said. “I knew that I had to do something about my own health.” And so she did … that personal discovery launched a new phase in her life as a ‘fitness freak.’

“It was all stuff I knew intellectually but had been ignoring in my lifestyle so I signed up for a fitness boot camp and changed my life,” she said. “It didn’t enter my mind that it would be so much fun, but it really has been,” Hartmann enthused. “I started getting stronger — crazy strong — and I loved it.”

In addition to her teaching, lab work, writing, and family life, she started training as much as possible, lost 35 pounds, and became part of the ‘Fitocracy.’

“I was fascinated by interval training — cycling, swimming, running, rock climbing, and, as part of the routine, I took up kettlebell, an obscure Eastern European weight lifting sport. I  went to Berkeley for training, and began to compete in the sport.” Hartmann continued, “I was beating women half my age, and last year I became the lead in my division. I’m going to Portugal this year to defend my rank.“

She added, "When I began, I was out of shape. I  couldn’t run a mile. Now I am a certified strength coach and help people design their fitness programs." Hartmann added that she didn’t expect getting fit to be so much fun. She also didn’t realize in the beginning that exercising her body would also give her mind a workout. “It turns out that this is a great way to get problems solved,” she said. “Evidence shows that exercise improves problem-solving skills, improves sleep and general well-being.”

Hartmann puts her undergraduate training to good use in her blog, realfitmd.com. “I’ve been writing about what the evidence actually says about fitness and health,” she explained. Hartmann also logs workouts and participates in the Fitocracy motivational community (fitocracy.com) under the handle 2bcrzyft ... which doesn’t seem crazy at all.

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