Kristina Hultén moved to Houston from Sweden in 1997. She is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics , specializing in research to combat pediatric infectious diseases. She conducts a children’s church choir and has three sons, Jakob, David and Philip.
What’s your story, Tina?
I was born near Stockholm in Sweden and I grew up not far from there in Västerås. I went to a performing arts school from 4th through 9th grade, and played the piano and sang in choirs. But I was torn between going into natural sciences and music, so I went into a natural sciences high school program but did all the music I could with the performing arts students on the side. My high school was built in the 1500s and it is one of the very few high schools that has a cathedral on its school yard which I think is pretty cool.
Then, at the end of school I was again torn about what to do –sciences or music. I figured that I didn’t want to be a piano teacher and I really liked analytical thinking, so I went into the sciences. I always really loved medicine, and I wanted to do research so I did a PhD in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology, and as part of that I came over to Houston. I did a two month fellowship at the VA for Baylor College of Medicine in my PhD research area, Helicobacter pylori, so they invited me to come back when I was done.
I had never been to Texas before I came here for the first time in 1994. I had thought I really want to go to Paris and speak French, but my husband Thomas said, “You know, the United States would be fabulous!” So I came here for two months and was just astounded by how friendly people were and what a great research place I ended up working at. I really loved it and we decided we would both come back. I got a grant and we came back in 1997 for a year to begin with and then we stayed.
I was married before I came but all my children were born here. Thomas is a trombone player – he plays classical trombone and jazz trombone and he’s also a composer and arranger. He works with the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet as Principal trombone and then does a bunch of freelance stuff on the side – jazz, shows, composing and arranging.
I work with a research group in infectious diseases and with two other researchers, more senior than I am, who had started two programs before I got here, relating to Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus. One of the studies is confined to patients at Texas Children’s Hospital and the other involves eight different children’s hospitals in the United States. They are prospective surveillance studies, meaning that we collect isolates and follow epidemiologic changes over time. We follow changes in antibiotic resistance, we analyze if there are certain strains associated with certain disease presentations, and so on.
What we learn can be used in different ways. In the case of Streptococcus pneumoniae we are interested in knowing what changes occur after the introduction of a vaccine. After one pediatric vaccine had been introduced several years ago we and other research groups noticed that a few strains that were not part of the vaccine became more common and so the vaccine was improved [by others] and now covers for these strains as well. Now we are following the changes after the new vaccine is being used. These vaccines have greatly reduced invasive pneumococcal diseases in children.
With the Staphylococcus aureus research at Texas Children’s Hospital, the research also involves epidemiology and resistance surveillance. There is no Staph vaccine in use, but there are still changes in the types of strains that occur and Staph germs are very adaptable to new challenges. For example, in the early 2000’s we observed a quite sudden increase in methicillin resistant Staph aureus (MRSA) infections in the community, both skin and more severe infections. We hypothesized there must be a particularly virulent gene, or strain, that caused the severe infections. Because of our ongoing study, we had the materials necessary to investigate what was going on in our community here in Houston and we studied a large number of bacterial isolates in the lab using different methods. We looked for specific virulence genes and compared if different isolates were genetically related to each other and we analyzed if there was a difference between strains from different types of infection.
What we found was that there was a particular clone that ”moved in” and took over. This clone was the cause of almost all of the community MRSA infections, regardless of severity. Others reported the same strain causing adult infections as it spread in many parts of the United States at the same time. We sequenced one of the isolates together with scientists at the Genome Center at Baylor College of Medicine to find out what made this particular strain so successful. While a few genes have been identified as ”of interest”, there is no easy answer. We, and many other research groups in the United States, use different methods and approaches to understand better what makes a Staph germ successful – with the goal of finding better treatments and reducing or preventing disease.
Is there an end point to my field of research? There are smaller parts of the larger issue that have been completed and that we know, but will there be a day when we completely understand how the bacteria function and change so we can combat them successfully? There is a lot of research yet to be done to reach that point when it comes to Staph infections. But the methods and approaches change as we learn more and as new techniques become available. In the case of Streptococcus pneumoniae it is too early to tell after the latest vaccine. The research in infectious diseases at Texas Children’s Hospital is really important to me, very motivating. I am absolutely fascinated by the microbes and how they continuously evolve. I think it’s a great area of research – but then everyone says that about their research interest, don’t they?
What does Houston mean to you?
We’ve been here for 16 years, so that’s quite a while, and for the most part I feel at home. When you have had your children somewhere and raise them there, you get your roots there with the kids. As Europeans coming to the US, we think that there are so many things that are alike, but then you start realizing the things that are not alike. Things that you think would be simple, like figuring out which toothpaste to use, or which laundry detergent works, because all of a sudden they are not exactly the same. In Sweden, there are ten brands to choose from and here there are 200! Then there is the banking system, the social security, the differences in utilities, schools and healthcare etc. So, there are lots of things to learn. When we first came, we were struck by the kindness shown to us by people that barely knew us. One example: when we had our first child, less than a year after our arrival, my first work place threw us a baby shower. That was just amazing – shockingly generous to us Swedes. The kindness we were offered definitely helped us feel at home.
Also what I think is really neat about Houston are the Arts. I am so proud of how the whole arts community is growing – just take the quality of the Opera, it is inspiring to read the program and see all the great ideas. The Medical Center, it’s the same thing, it’s growing. What I like the best about Houston is that people want to do the best they can. I think people work hard but they really have a desire for quality, you see that in the research area, at Baylor and Texas Children’s, this wish to improve and I see that in the Arts scene and in other areas too.
What advice would you give to someone new to the United States?
I believe you must find places where you feel at home and where you connect. For us, we had connections here already when we came, a brass player and his wife. He actually used to be a teacher of one of Thomas’s good friends in Sweden. We had our friend’s sister here too and so having those connections helped us to get established. Our new friends went to First Presbyterian Church and invited us to go there. So we went and discovered a Christian community we could be part of. The big pull back then was the sermons, believe it or not. But there was also a fabulous choir, which I started singing in, and we found we had something in common. When you go somewhere as a newcomer, find people with a common purpose and somewhere to settle. Of course when you have kids, school helps you, but the church has been very important for us to get established and to feel at home.
I still sing in the choir at First Presbyterian Church and I also lead a 3rd to 5th grade children’s chorus called the Alleluia Choir. It’s really, really fun – I have three boys in the choir, otherwise it is mainly formed by girls. They are all great little singers.
Who has been the greatest influence on your life?
I think my parents have been very influential in how I approach life. They were always very unselfish and they always worked really hard but always worked hard for others. They were both teachers first and education was important to them, but they also worked for the church. They gave up their teaching careers to go into full time positions – my mom working for a Salvation Army community center where she helped a tremendous number of people, either immigrants or single moms on a fixed budget. To see how she helped them navigate their tragedies and make a difference was very inspirational to me. You know, in general, any person who does things for other people, but not for personal gains, really inspire me.
How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
Ha ha! That’s easy, I don’t have balance! I think it’s a constant struggle. I would like to spend a lot more time at work, a lot more time for it to feel meaningful and to let me do what I need to get done. And I would like to spend a lot more time with my kids because they are growing up and they are fantastic, and it is just magical to see them become themselves, to find themselves. They are their own individuals already when they are born, but to see them discover that personality is really neat. My boys are 15, 12 and almost 11, and of course I would want to be there with them to see them take every breath. But they certainly don’t need me there all the time to grow. It is a balance, right? And it’s good.
I guess the struggle to find balance is, in itself, a good thing too, if you reflect upon it, because you have to remind yourself constantly what’s important.
Where is your happy place in Houston?
I have lots of happy places, but really I carry happy with me. I am happy when I go to work and I’m happy when I go home to see my kids, and I’m happy with I sit down in choir and I get to sing. I’m happy when I get to go to the opera and hear a great performance, and so it continues.
What is your favorite restaurant?
OK, if people come from Sweden, we want them to go to Pappasito’s because we want them to have those fajitas, or to Goode Company because they need good Texas Barbecue. But I like to go to Café Rabelais because they have great mussels and I like to go with the kids to Skeeters because I think it’s just so nice and friendly. Otherwise we love to eat at home.
What is your Houston secret?
I try to make everybody go to the Opera. I know I am repeating myself, but I think we have a great arts scene here and people aren’t aware of that.
If you could change one thing about Houston
First, I would end all the senseless shootings. Then, I would make people stop texting when they drive and become more patient as drivers. I think there is an intolerance and rudeness about driving in this city, and everybody seems to be putting themselves first.