Faculty Spotlight: Michelle A. Albert, MD

Dr. Michelle A. Albert
Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall

Dr. Michelle A. Albert, who recently joined the Division of Cardiology faculty, was raised in Guyana, South America by her grandparents while her parents studied in England. She planned to become an actuary like her father, but everything changed when her grandfather died suddenly in his early 60's. His death, her intense experiences of growing up in a third world nation, her in-depth study of the history of slavery, and her love of science inspired her to become a physician-researcher.

When she was 15, her family moved to Brooklyn. She studied chemistry at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, graduating at age 20, then attended the University of Rochester School of Medicine. She completed internal medicine residency and chief residency at Columbia University, followed by research and clinical fellowships at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, where she served on faculty for a decade, eventually becoming an Associate Professor. She also earned a master's degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. Under the tutelage of Dr. Paul M. Ridker, Dr. Albert researched inflammatory biomarkers of cardiovascular risk prediction, with an emphasis on minorities and women. She has translated her work into cardiovascular health promotion, mentoring, and risk prevention for racial and ethnic minorities and women at the community, national and international levels. Dr. Albert has received several awards for her research and advocacy efforts.

Dr. Albert now transitions to UCSF Cardiology after serving as Chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Howard University in Washington, DC. She joined the UCSF faculty in January.

Investigating Brain-Heart Connection

Her own experiences fostered an interest in how social factors such as racial discrimination or job stress can have adverse biological effects. "Some forms of adversity differentially experienced by some racial and ethnic groups are akin to post-traumatic stress disorder," said Dr. Albert. "Psychological stress is a normal part of life, but chronic, persistent stress that is accompanied by a lack of control has a negative impact on health." Among other problems, chronic stress is associated with hypertension, obesity, inflammation and continual activation of the "fight or flight" response.

Yet very little research is available about the interplay of adversity and biology: how does chronic stress affect biological indicators of disease, progression of atherosclerosis, heart failure and other conditions? In addition to discovering more about these questions, Dr. Albert is investigating how social support and childhood learning opportunities cultivate resilience and the ability to adhere to healthy habits later in life.

"Brain patterning and neurocognitive function is essentially formulated by age 12," said Dr. Albert. "Early involvement in activities like music and sports helps young people access different parts of their brain and develop skills for lifelong learning that are also important for practicing self-care. Without such opportunities, it's less likely that at age 35 or 65 they will have the ‘biological fitness' to follow through on recommendations such as exercising or taking a daily statin."

Dr. Albert has established the UCSF CeNter for the StUdy of AdveRsiTy and CardiovascUlaR DiseasE (NURTURE), which examines the biological and social interconnectivity of adversity across the lifespan, from pre-pregnancy into adulthood. The multidisciplinary center investigates the physiological underpinnings of adversity – for example, how stress affects the brain, and how these changes in turn may affect the heart – and develops interventions to prevent and treat disease. The center also trains and mentors researchers interested in how adversity impacts cardiovascular health.

"A lot of UCSF faculty are pioneers in stress research, and it's a very fertile environment," said Dr. Albert. "I'm excited to collaborate with investigators who lead the field in their domains."

In addition to directing NUTURE, Dr. Albert sees general cardiology patients in clinic and cares for hospitalized CCU patients. "Taking care of patients, you meet people at their most vulnerable," she said. "They entrust a lot in you, and it's a privilege to be able to touch someone's soul."

In her free time, Dr. Albert enjoys spending time by the water, traveling with her husband, Edward, listening and dancing to Beyoncé's music as well as afternoon tea.