October 16, 2014

DeBaun’s Levi Watkins Lecture highlights the power of purpose

Throughout his career in medicine, Michael R. DeBaun, M.D., has found moments to fight the status quo.

On hand for Tuesday’s lecture were, from left, André Churchwell, M.D., Michael R. DeBaun, M.D., Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., and Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Josh Brown

Throughout his career in medicine, Michael R. DeBaun, M.D., has found moments to fight the status quo.

As a medical student at Stanford University, DeBaun, now the J.C. Peterson Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Vanderbilt, took up the case of an applicant who he thought had been turned away unfairly.

Later, DeBaun’s efforts to bring new understanding to sickle cell anemia laid the groundwork for more attention and resources to be devoted to treating the illness.

DeBaun spoke to students, faculty and staff on Tuesday for the 13th Annual Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education.

The lecture honors Watkins, a prominent cardiac surgeon and the first African-American student to be admitted to and graduate from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

During his address, “Academic Activism: Choosing the Right Time and the Right Purpose,” DeBaun gave insight into how he refined his approach over the years from taking on individual cases such as that medical school applicant to working on projects that would have a broader impact.

“There were certain challenges that I was faced with that I had to wrestle,” said DeBaun, who’s also the vice chair of clinical research in the Department of Pediatrics and director of the Vanderbilt-Meharry-Matthew Walker Center for Excellence in Sickle Cell Disease.

He gave the example from during his time at Washington University in St. Louis, where he identified the need for a social worker to handle cases of patients with sickle cell anemia.

Administrators initially balked at the idea of hiring a new social worker devoted to that population of patients, DeBaun said. So he went in a different direction, securing grant funding to pay for the new position.

The new social worker came on board and made a tremendous impact on the clinic, he said.

“They really had no choice when the grant ran out but to hire the social worker permanently,” DeBaun said.

He also touched on his relationship with Watkins, which dates back to when DeBaun was applying for admission at medical schools.

At the time, Watkins, who recently retired as a professor of Cardiac Surgery and associate dean of postdoctoral program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, reached out to DeBaun to offer advice.

Jana Lauderdale, Ph.D., R.N., here with André Churchwell, M.D., received the Faculty Award at Tuesday’s lecture. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Tuesday’s lecture, which was put on by the Office for Diversity Affairs, also provided an opportunity to honor a faculty member and students who have made a difference in diversity.

The Faculty Award, which is given to individuals who help create opportunities for minorities in VUSM’s educational and research programs, was awarded to Jana Lauderdale, Ph.D., R.N. The Resident Award went to Foluso Joy Ogunsile, M.D., and student awards were presented to Krystal Tsosie, a Ph.D./MPH, student, and Leonela Villegas, a third-year medical student.