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Breaking Down Barriers in Research and Care

December 10, 2022


Two long-time advocates for mentorship and diversity in academics and medicine will be celebrated during the 2022 ASH Annual Meeting, as James Gavin, MD, PhD, and David Wilkes, MD, each accept the 2022 ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity. 

Dr. Gavin is a clinical professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and the Indiana University School of Medicine, and a distinguished figure in the field of diabetes research. Dr. Wilkes is Dean Emeritus of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, is widely acknowledged for his research in pulmonary medicine, and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2020. Both individuals are being recognized by ASH for their ongoing efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion in medicine and for their prominent leadership of the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — a program that has partnered with ASH for many years, with the goal of increasing the number of under-represented minority hematologists with academic and research appointments. 

Dr. Gavin’s career was spurred by an interest in basic research, which led to his attaining a PhD in biochemistry. During postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health, he became interested in insulin and its receptors in human tissues and began learning about diabetes. “In reflection I realized that this was the disease that had killed my beloved greatgrandmother, and which affected many members of my family,” Dr. Gavin said. From that point forward, he decided that if he was going to devote his life’s work to finding answers that could improve disease outcomes, why not study a disease that had impacted his family personally, and that also had a greater incidence, and morbidity, among African Americans? “This was in the early 1970s, and this revelation prompted me to enroll in medical school to get the training and experiences I needed to become a clinical endocrinologist with a passion to do research,” he recalled. 

For Dr. Gavin, solving big medical problems is interwoven with eradicating disparities. “One of the great challenges in medicine,” he stated, “is that a variety of diseases, many of which are quite serious, can affect different populations in different ways.” He acknowledged that more clinically productive relationships can occur if there is ethnic or racial concordance between patients and their providers, and whether in the research or clinical setting, diversity of thought and approach are critical to finding answers to important clinical questions and improving outcomes. This diversity can emerge from “different lived experiences, backgrounds, customs, training, and beliefs. We can more fully leverage our enormous collective strengths through actualization of diversity,” he said. 

Dr. Gavin cites the influence of multiple mentors, including Rev. E.N. French, Dr. Leo Reichert, and Dr. Jesse Roth, who taught him to be daring, to take risks in the pursuit of experimental designs, and to not be dissuaded just because something has not been done before. “Always repeat and verify,” said Dr. Gavin, sharing the advice he received from Dr. Roth, “but follow and defend the data, while inviting others to repeat your observations.” 

His 20 years as National Program Office Director of AMFDP are a testament to his belief that championing the strengths of others and supporting their career goals can help to promote a more diverse medical field. The impression Dr. Gavin has made on hundreds of under-represented minority scholars (and the person responsible for the ASH-AMFDP partnership) is vast. And that mission continues in the work he does currently. “I remain engaged with efforts to increase the rates of entry of under-represented groups into academia and health care — areas where we clearly need more diversity and need it urgently.” 

Dr. Gavin maintains that the medical community must face ‘the uncomfortable truths’ regarding the persistent gaps in diversity in medicine. “If we do not understand clearly how we got here, we will do poorly at finding corrective strategies. Denial is not the preferred route to reconciliation and renewal. I am engaged in efforts to champion such approaches,” he said. 

For Dr. Wilkes, accepting this Honorific Award alongside Dr. Gavin is no small matter. “To get this award with Jim is a really big deal for me … I was beaming,” he said, remarking that he met Dr. Gavin when applying for the AMFDP (known at the time as the Minority Medical Faculty Development Program, and later renamed in honor of Dr. Harold Amos). “[Dr. Gavin] was part of the interview and selection process, and over the years, he evolved into a real mentor and sponsor for me.” 

Pulmonary medicine and critical care were areas Dr. Wilkes was drawn to early on. He was fascinated with the “whys” behind illness and other challenges in health care, which led him to basic science and the study of disease mechanisms. He also developed a strong interest in understanding the immunology of lung transplant rejection, as well as graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), as the lung is a target organ for both disorders. “As we understood that better, we then realized the contribution that my lab was able to make was that the target of the immune response in the lung in these disorders was an autoantigen — it’s a protein that we all share. It wasn’t about differences between a transplant and the recipient.” 

This in turn led to an interest in understanding immune mechanisms in pulmonary fibrosis, as the end point of lung transplant rejection or GVHD in the lung, is scarring and fibrosis. This further led to the development of treatments at Dr. Wilkes lab, for pulmonary fibrosis and lung transplant rejection. 

In addition to his breakthroughs as a basic scientist, Dr. Wilkes has served as the third National Program Office Director of AMFDP. He emphasized the ecosystem shared by basic science, genomics, epidemiology, outcomes research, mentorship, and diversity, equity and inclusion. “With the advent of genomics in medicine, we know that all treatments don’t work the same in all patients. Studies show that we need to understand genetics better, particularly for underserved patients,” he said, citing the importance of bettering this understanding in order to create more effective therapeutics. “It’s all interrelated, and having a diverse set of individuals who can [reach] new discoveries, teach the next generation, and fulfill the whole cultural competency piece … that’s what we should be doing.” Dr. Wilkes stated that his role directing AMFDP and working with partners like ASH is an element of his legacy. 

Dr. Wilkes praised his many mentors and sponsors over the years in addition to Dr. Gavin, including Drs. Janice Blum, Craig Brater, Claire Doerschuk, and Bennett Lorber. Mentorship is a core part of Dr. Wilkes’ life and career path, and it is also central to the advice he often shares with early-career clinicians or scientists: Find a mentor, and also bear in mind that those relationships evolve over time. “You’re going to need multiple people. And you’re going to need sponsors that can get you access to different things,” he said “Those two elements are mission critical. Mentorship and sponsorship early on in your career — you’ve just got to have that.” 

Join ASH in honoring Dr. Gavin and Dr. Wilkes on Sunday, December 11, at 1:30 p.m. Central time during the Announcement of Awards General Session in Hall E at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

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