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Watkins lecturer focuses on research, inspirations

Oct. 11, 2018, 8:40 AM

NHLBI Director Gary Gibbons, MD, right, poses for a photo with Vanderbilt’s André Churchwell, MD, before Tuesday’s Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Kathy Whitney

André Churchwell, MD, welcomed those gathered at the 17th Annual Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture on Tuesday with a reminder of who they were honoring and why.

“You can never really say enough about Levi in terms of what he meant to Vanderbilt and to academic medicine in general,” said Churchwell, Chief Diversity Officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Watkins was the first African-American student to graduate from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He did so in 1970 and then did a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital where he became the first black chief resident in cardiac surgery. Watkins’s successful implantation of a defibrillator was performed in 1980. He died in 2015 at the age of 70.

Keynote speaker Gary Gibbons, MD, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), spoke on “Shaping the Science and Health of the Future,” and drew parallels between his life and that of Watkins.

“A trailblazer like Levi Watkins has been an icon and a role model for me and is clearly deserving of this recognition,” Gibbons said. “As a cardiovascular scientist about 12 years behind him, I was always intrigued by his trailblazing ways. I hope he is an inspiration to some of the next generation of leaders who will be following him.”

Both Watkins and Gibbons were children of educators, inspired to pursue excellence in education imprinted by a sense of service. Gibbons’ youngest daughter’s middle name is Rosa, named for Rosa Parks, who initiated the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where Watkins grew up.

“The echoes of these events and how they shape your life journey … are the ripples of how his life and ours start to interconnect,” Gibbons said. “When I entered Harvard Medical School … I was living through and living out the fulfillment of a dream our parents had where they didn’t have the opportunity to go to a Princeton or to a Harvard. My life has been going across those lines, often being the only one who looks like me in the room. I can relate to some elements of what Levi Watkins’ experience was,” Gibbons said.

Watkins and Gibbons also had a common mentor in A. Clifford Barger, MD, Robert Henry Pfeiffer Professor of Physiology, emeritus, and chair of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School.

“In some ways, I feel a connection with his path in part because I would not be standing in front of you today as director of NHLBI if it hadn’t been for my encounter with Cliff Barger. I was going to pursue being a primary care doctor in Philadelphia. I hadn’t done biomedical research and didn’t have any intention of going to Harvard to do it,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School. He completed his residency and cardiology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was a faculty member at Stanford University and Harvard Medical School before joining Morehouse School of Medicine in 1999.

Since being named director of NHLBI in 2012, Gibbons has enhanced the NHLBI investment in fundamental discovery science, steadily increasing the payline and number of awards for established and early stage investigators.

His commitment to nurturing the next generation of scientists manifests in expanded funding for career development and loan repayment awards as well as initiatives to facilitate the transition to independent research awards.

As part of the annual lecture, the Levi Watkins Jr., MD Awards were presented to the following: Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD — faculty award; Kevin Taylor, MD, and Wali Johnson, MD — house officer awards; Kianna Jackson — medical student award; and Kellie Williford — graduate student award.

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