Expert in pediatrics, infectious diseases leading Texas A&M University’s health-related efforts
Carrie L. Byington ’85, MD, sees potential in every situation.
It’s what drove her to pursue a career in medicine—with little outside guidance—and why she became a pediatrician and a physician scientist. It’s also the unlimited potential at Texas A&M that brought her back to her alma mater after a 21-year career at the University of Utah. Byington was recently appointed dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, senior vice president of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center and vice chancellor for health services at The Texas A&M University System.
A native of South Texas, Byington did not come from a health care legacy—though she always knew she wanted to practice medicine. Her father, an Aggie petroleum engineer, and mother, a school teacher, were surprised to hear that their daughter had aspirations of becoming a physician.
“I always liked science, even at a very young age,” Byington said. “That was initially a concern in my family; it was just a time when girls didn’t necessarily pursue careers in science.”
Although it seemed like a far-fetched dream, Byington didn’t waver, but instead pursued her interests as an undergraduate student. She earned her Bachelor of Science in biology from Texas A&M and went on to receive her Doctor of Medicine from Baylor College of Medicine.
“Going to medical school was extremely intimidating to me,” Byington admitted. “In fact, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in this profession, and probably always will. I did not have the social or cultural experiences as some of those in my class did, but I knew becoming a physician is what I wanted to do.”
Initially Byington thought she wanted to become a surgeon, but a pediatrics rotation left a lasting impression on her. Her focus shifted because she saw the potential to impact the tiniest—and often most vulnerable—lives.
“There is such a tremendous opportunity when you care for children, who have their entire lives in front of them. When you treat or cure an infant, they have 80 more years of productive life to look forward to,” said Byington, who trained in pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center and in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco. “The difference you can make in a child’s life is incredible.”
Today, she is internationally known for her work using advanced molecular techniques to rapidly diagnose infections in children.
“When I first came into practice, we didn’t have a way to quickly tell the difference between a fever stemming from a virus and one caused by bacteria; it was a bit of a guessing game,” Byington said. “You don’t want to put an infant in the hospital with a routine cold, but you also don’t want to send a baby home with a life-threatening bacterial infection.”
Working with BioFire Diagnostics, Byington helped develop FilmArray, a rapid test that can distinguish viral infections from bacterial and even parasitical ones. The technology is now used in thousands of hospitals around the world.
Most recently, she was tapped to chair the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Infectious Disease Advisory Group, where she worked to protect American athletes traveling to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from the Zika virus. She also chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases, which prepares all policies related to pediatric infectious diseases and vaccines and produces the Red Book—a resource used by pediatricians around the world in the treatment of childhood infectious diseases.
“Zika posed a variety of risks to our Olympians headed into Rio de Janeiro, especially those of reproductive age,” Byington said. “The goal was to better protect the health of our athletes and staff, and open avenues for long-term research and collaboration to improve understanding of the virus for not only those in the US, but for people in all regions affected by the virus.”
Byington hasn’t lost touch with the more personal side of medicine, though. She’s had some patients for twenty years. “I become very attached to my patients,” she said. “Saying goodbye to my patients and their families when they grow up and age out of a pediatric practice is one of hardest things I ever have to do.”
And throughout her entire career, she’s remained steadfast in her commitment to mentoring the nation’s future clinician scientists. At the University of Utah, Byington’s dedication for mentoring others ultimately led to the creation of a two-year training program to grow the nation’s physician-scientist pipeline, work that culminated in her 2015 Association of American Medical Colleges’ “Women in Medicine and Science Leadership” award.
“On my path to medicine I didn’t have a clear mentor to help guide the way, which spurred my desire to help mentor others in similar situations.” Byington said. “Today, that desire is still at the core of everything I do. We’re only as successful as those around us. Guiding and mentoring young clinicians and investigators strengthens our profession.”
Just this week, Byington transitioned to her new gig in Aggieland—a place where she sees tremendous potential.
“At Texas A&M, faculty, staff and students are used to a strong work ethic and trying to accomplish what others think is impossible,” she said. “The potential—and commitment to achieving the impossible—really drew me in.”
Specifically, Byington sees the composition of a health science center involving all major health disciplines—biomedical sciences, dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health—geographically distributed across Texas, as our “biggest advantage in the marketplace.” Especially when she considers the existing strong collaborations with other colleges and agencies across the Texas A&M system. Byington sees opportunity for Texas A&M to lead the way in a new model of team-based health care education, delivery and research.
“Our strategic partnerships, such as EnMed and Healthy South Texas, are imperative to adding value to our communities across the state.” Byington said. “The ability to educate a kind of physician who can both diagnose symptoms and treat patients, as well as tackle complex problems with an engineering mindset; or establish interdisciplinary teams designed to take a holistic approach to regional health disparities are just the beginning of the monumental shift in the way health care is delivered—in the way Texas A&M can deliver it.”
One of the most daunting of her aspirations: Creating a clinical network with an emphasis on population health management to tackle critical issues such as the need for more accessible, efficient primary care and more effective, integrated mental health services. Another focus of hers is on transitional care, to help patients continue to improve their health once they leave the hospital and return home.
“Without its own hospital or large-scale clinical operation, some might see a weakness, but I see Texas A&M as a blank canvas, unencumbered by the way things have been done in the past,” she said. “That leaves us ready to create the future.”
Byington’s background is part of what drives a focus on a more patient-centered, inclusive approach to health care. Her appointment at Texas A&M signals another first among the nation’s medical schools, as she will become the first Mexican American woman to hold the position of dean and senior vice president for a U.S. academic medical center.
“I’m a living example that if you work hard and are focused, you can succeed,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you came from, or how your road has been: it’s how you use those experiences to shape your future.”
And today, the future of the Texas A&M Health Science Center is looking a little brighter thanks to Byington’s vision. “Although many institutions across the nation are trying to transform health care, I believe Aggies can actually do it.”