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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Philip Owens

VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System

October 18, 2018

 Dr. Philip Owens is a research health scientist at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Denver.
Dr. Philip Owens is a research health scientist at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Denver.

Dr. Philip Owens is a research health scientist at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Denver.

Dr. Philip Owens, an Army Veteran, is a research health scientist at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Denver. He focuses on developing small molecule inhibitors, substances that can potentially kill cancer cells, for treating metastatic breast and prostate cancer. He’s working to identify distinct populations of immune cells within tumors and understand how they contribute to disease progression. He’s authored peer-reviewed papers on the subject and is also an assistant professor at the University of Colorado. As a combat medic, he served with the Washington (state) Army National Guard and in the U.S. Army Reserves. He twice earned the Army Achievement Medal.

What motivated you to join the military?

I was driven to military service by a profound sense of needing to do something for someone other than myself. The military offered me an immediate opportunity as an 18-year-old with a lot of energy to go to work. The Army can’t wait a few years before you’re ready to do your job. I completed my medic training in three months. It allowed me to feel responsible and capable.

What inspired your research career?

The Army taught me that I could always do much more than I believed and to never stop fighting for the things that I value. I understood research to mean that we would never be satisfied with our current understanding of something. I really like the idea that we must constantly do better and always know more.

Did you have mentors inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?

I’ve had mentors at every stage of my life, and I will continue to have mentors. In the military, almost every junior non-commissioned officer set a constant example of the need to pursue a standard of professionalism, whereby even in the field every soldier should be afforded respect and courtesy regardless of rank. The officers inspired my faith and confidence that I could complete tasks in a professional manner. I also deeply valued the nurses and nurse practitioners of the 164th MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital]. They never ceased to impress upon me what hard work and dedication truly meant. My mentors in my research career have provided great inspiration. During my doctorate training at Oregon Health Sciences University, my mentor, Dr. Xiao-Jing Wang, instilled in me a deep sense of support and belonging. I worked in Dr. Wang’s lab. She made me realize the importance of inclusiveness and making sure everyone knows that he or she is a key part of the team and to accomplishing its goals. During my fellowship period, I had two mentors greatly inspired me. The first was Dr. Harold Moses, taught me how to see the bigger picture and the significance of my research. The mentor encouraged and nurtured me to develop a research program for Veterans is Dr. Ann Richmond. She continues to inspire me with her unmatched dedication and hard work. Dr. Richmond taught me the joy of knowing we can always do better and work harder in serving our Veterans.

 Owens (drawing blood from a fellow soldier in this photo) served as an Army medic.
Owens (drawing blood from a fellow soldier in this photo) served as an Army medic.

Owens (drawing blood from a fellow soldier in this photo) served as an Army medic.

When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.

I enlisted in the Army 10 days after my 18th birthday in 1994 to become a medic. After my training, I came to my first unit, the 164th MASH at Camp Murray in Washington. In 1998, I moved to the emergency department of the 6250th reserve Army hospital at the Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis in Washington. I was fortunate as a medic in my military experience. My units were always supportive and helpful. I had a wonderful mix of junior soldiers to relate to and senior experienced non-commissioned officers helped me understand expectations. My early years were mostly spent as a medic on firing ranges. My most enjoyable times were helping new trainees perform their summer ROTC courses or their preselection courses for advanced training. I didn’t want to go to college, and I wasn’t ready to earn a doctorate when I was 18. I wanted to get my hands dirty and do something that allowed me to be a qualified medic within six months of enlistment. There were some difficult and depressing times in the Army. But those events always forced me to be pragmatic and to decide I needed to be.

What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?

My research focuses on metastatic cancers that reside in the bone. When I began my research career, many advisors told me to study cancers that were treatable and preventable. I sought mentors and advisors were committed to helping those with the poorest of prognoses and to determining how we could start to think about helping them. I now study how the immune system interacts with prostate and breast cancer when those cancers go to the bone, which can be a very painful condition. I’m trying to distinguish different types of this disease that may benefit from very personalized treatment strategies. Some of these cancers have distinct effects on the bone and immune system and haven’t had the best treatments.

Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?

My military experience always left me with a feeling that there was something more that I could do. I’ve watched so many people in the military give much more than I felt I gave. One of the greatest feelings you can have from military service is knowing that you would rather endure something than make your fellow solider endure it. In turn, soldiers continually make sacrifices for us. I have tremendous satisfaction knowing that every day I get up, I am trying to improve the lives of Veterans are suffering from cancer.

How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?

If one Veteran has a better life because of any of the things that I study, then to me my life is a success. The more I can do in my research that leads to better treatment outcomes for Veterans, the more I meet my ultimate goals.

Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?

As a Veteran working at a VA hospital, I think of every friend and solider that I knew when I was in the Army. wI know that most Veterans don’t want to burden others with their pain, which is why we must all be active voices in support of them.

Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success?

The most important guiding principles for me are loyalty: Be true to the people you serve, for they serve you; commitment: Get up and wear your heart on your sleeve; and be useful: Look for opportunities to serve anyone by watching, listening, and cultivating empathy. Also, it’s very important at any stage of your career to make those are newer feel welcome and included. When you see new co-workers, you should make an extra effort to ask them how they are. Doing so will make a huge difference in their life.

What’s the next step for you in your VA career?

My next step at VA is to transition from a Career Development award to a Merit Review funding award before 2021, when my current award expires. I hope to enhance the clinical mission at the Denver VA with research teams that integrate clinical services from pathology, medical oncology, radiology, orthopedics, and patient advocacy. Metastatic cancer is a complex disease that requires many different treatments that we can always improve for Veterans.

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