One look at the resume of Maria Mariencheck, MD, and you cannot help but be impressed. High school valedictorian, a generous scholarship to Washington University, acceptance into a medical scientist program that included a full ride to medical school as well as a stipend that earned her an MD/PhD, and a dermatology residency followed by faculty appointment at Duke. If you only looked at her on paper, you'd miss the best part of the story - her heart.
The oldest of three girls, Mariencheck grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, about an hour outside of Chicago. The importance of getting a good education was stressed in her home and not just because her mother was a school teacher. "My grandparents immigrated to America from Italy, they mined coal in Virginia and never learned to read. My parents were born in the United States and while my mom went to college, my father, who worked for the railroad, only completed high school. Education to them was the way out," said Mariencheck. "We lived a simple lifestyle. I went to a public high school; we may have taken two vacations my whole life."
Even though she graduated at the top of her class, Mariencheck had not really looked at many colleges. In fact, she thought her only option, for financial reasons, would be the University of Illinois until a trip with a friend opened another door. "I tagged along with a friend and her parents to St. Louis and we toured Washington University. I got to talk to the people there and fortunately they took an interest in me," said Mariencheck. "I only applied to the University of Illinois and to Washington University. When I was offered a very generous scholarship to Wash U, it was an easy decision. While I wasn't a fan of big cities, St. Louis was close enough that I could take the train home."
That train ride home would ultimately come to mean a great deal, not only to Mariencheck, but also to the career path she would choose. Late in her sophomore year, her father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. "I spent the summer after he was diagnosed at home helping my mother care for him. Then, went back to school in the fall, but came home on weekends until he died at the end of my junior year," she said. "I had planned to go into research in cell biology but going through my dad's cancer got me interested in medicine. My advisors encouraged me to apply to Washington University's medical scientist training program, that would earn me a MD and a PhD in cell biology. The seven-year program included a full ride to medical school plus a stipend for living expenses and with my dad gone and two sisters for my mom to support on her own, that made the competitive program even more attractive as an option after I completed my undergraduate studies."
In the program, students spend the first two years in medical school followed by four years working on their PhD. The final year has them back in medical school doing rotations throughout different specialties. "During my PhD program, I did a lot of research on elastic tissue so there was quite a bit of dermatology related to it," said Mariencheck. "I found that I really liked interacting with people which made me think that maybe research wasn't the avenue I wanted to pursue after all. When I went back to finish up my last year of medical school, I knew dermatology is what I wanted to do."
In addition to completing her medical degree, Mariencheck also added a husband to her list of accomplishments in her last year of medical school. "Bill and I met in my second year of medical school and dated for four years before we got married," she said. "We graduated from medical school at the same time and we both matched at Duke University in North Carolina for our residency; mine was in dermatology and Bill went into pulmonology."
Residency for Mariencheck also meant becoming a mother. Her two daughters were born two years apart while she was in residency. When she and Bill completed their respective residencies, they both took faculty appointments at Duke. "With having the girls, we found we ourselves at the point of looking to what was next for us and knew we wanted to be closer to family," said Mariencheck. "Bill's family was in Memphis and when we found openings for both of us at the Jackson Clinic, it was the natural place to land and we moved here in 2000. Jackson has been the best place for us to raise our daughters and working for an organization that is so supportive of families has been great."
During her residency, Mariencheck was exposed to both medical and cosmetic dermatology but her interest remained on the clinical side. While it has been over 20 years since she was a resident, she says skin cancer and skin diseases are still the predominant issues she treats in her practice. "We are a lot more aware of skin cancer and the risks of tanning bed use today than when I was a resident," said Mariencheck. "Most of my skin cancer patients are getting younger. I now see basal cell carcinoma in patients under the age of 30, and almost all of them are those who have used tanning beds. Genetics can also play a role as well as sun exposure, but whether it runs in your family or not, you can control sun exposure and avoid tanning beds."
Advances in the treatment of skin disease, such as psoriasis and eczema, has been one of the most significant changes Mariencheck has seen over the years. "Many skin diseases have been found to have an auto immune basis and using injections of biologic treatments has been found to be quite effective," she said.
While this accomplished dermatologist may have gotten her degrees in the big city, her heart remains a small-town girl's who still enjoys the simple things. With both girls in college at Washington University, she and Bill enjoy running, cooking and hiking in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Family is also at the top of her list. Her mother makes her home with the Marienchecks during the summer months and they all love time at the beach whenever they can.