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Faculty Spotlight: Tung Tran, MD

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

For Tung Tran, MD, a love of problem-solving led him first to mathematics, and then to neurology. Today, Tran’s duties are split between directing the Durham Epilepsy of Excellence and being chief of neurology at the Durham VA Medical Center. In this week’s Faculty Spotlight, Tran talks to us about his work in each of these locations, how the neurology needs of veterans differ from those of the general population, and how his background in mathematics informs his work.

What are your responsibilities within the Neurology Department? What does your average work day look like?
I am an epileptologist who works at both Duke and Durham VA. My clinical responsibilities include outpatient epilepsy clinic and the inpatient epilepsy monitoring unit. My administrative responsibilities include being director of the Durham Epilepsy Center of Excellence and chief of neurology at Durham VAMC. These involve keeping up with multiple aspects of VA care and working with a lot of great people who do their best to provide outstanding neurological and epilepsy care for veterans. On a good day I meet with clinicians, staff and patients, to either directly provide health care or work on how to improve it. These interactions occur both in person and via technology, such as telemedicine.

What drew you to neurology? How did you get interested in treating patients with epilepsy in particular?
I always liked solving problems. When younger, those problems were mathematical. However, in graduate school I became more interested in the brain, our problem solving organ. This led naturally to neurology in medical school. In residency, the quantitative evaluation of brain activity through EEG seemed a perfect fit of my former and present interests.

You recently gave a grand rounds presentation on treating epilepsy in veterans. From a neurological perspective, how do the needs of veterans as a population differ from the general public?
Two characteristic health conditions of veterans are traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They arise from our soldier's unique exposure and burden them long past their service. Both conditions have direct and indirect impact on neurological disorders, such as epilepsy. Veterans Affairs Health Care is a unique national system that specializes in care for Veterans. Helping veterans involve understanding their specialized medical issues and helping them navigate their health care system.

What are the primary challenges and opportunities in treating these patients as a group?
A lot of this goes back to taking understanding and taking advantage of the VA health system. It is the largest national health care system. Organizing and supporting such a large and diverse system is complicated and involves many parties from across the nation. While this is a challenge, it also offers unique access to a large population of providers, patients and practice information. Finding a way to take advantage of these resources can potentially made a big difference.

Before becoming a doctor you had an interest in mathematics. What area did you study? How, if at all, does this knowledge influence your current work?
As a mathematician, I was mostly interested in abstract algebra and combinatorics. Many mathematical problems I encountered early had these themes, which were beautiful. When I went to graduate school, I worked in a group modeling neurological systems. At the time, that was about as practical as I applied to mathematics. Funny, how years later I have been blessed to be more practical every day. However, the problem solving and quantitative skills I learned then still apply today.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?

Within the past two years I was blessed to find my first house, get married, and become a father. These currently occupy my time outside of work.

Tran poses with his wife and daughter in this holiday photo.