March 17, 2016

Watkins, Neuzil named VUSM Distinguished Alumni

The late Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., and Kathleen Neuzil, M.D., MPH, have been named the 2016 Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) Distinguished Alumni Award recipients.

The late Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., and Kathleen Neuzil, M.D., MPH, have been named the 2016 Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) Distinguished Alumni Award recipients.

Levi Watkins Jr., M.D.

The pair will be honored during VUSM’s 2016 Reunion festivities, Oct. 20-22.

The Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumna/Alumnus Award is the highest honor awarded to alumni, said Ann Price, M.D., associate dean of Alumni Affairs. Thirty-eight recipients have been recognized since the award was first granted in 1983.

“Drs. Watkins’ and Neuzil’s careers provide role model examples to our current students and house officers,” said Price. “I hope by highlighting their achievements our young physicians will be inspired to walk their own distinguished career paths that will one day make them candidates for this award.”

Kathleen Neuzil, M.D., MPH

Watkins, a renowned cardiac surgeon, broke many racial barriers in medicine.

As the first black student admitted to and to graduate from VUSM as well as being selected to become a member of Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society, Watkins was a champion for racial equality and diversity. He blazed a trail for the School of Medicine, now nationally recognized for its admission of students underrepresented in medicine.

In 1978, after his surgical internship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Watkins became the hospital’s first black chief resident in cardiac surgery. He later joined Johns Hopkins, where he performed the world’s first implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator and subsequently developed several different techniques for implanting the device.

Watkins, professor of Cardiac Surgery and Associate Dean of Postdoctoral Programs at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, retired in 2013. His contributions to medicine reached far beyond his clinical expertise.

In 1988 Vanderbilt awarded him the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor for outstanding alumni, followed by the establishment of a Professorship and Associate Deanship in his name in 2002 because of his work for diversity in medical education.

A lecture named after Watkins is held every year where awards are given to students and members of the VUSM faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the institution in fostering opportunities for underrepresented minorities in Vanderbilt’s education and/or research programs.

In 2005 his portrait was unveiled at VUSM honoring his life’s work and commitment to Vanderbilt and in 2008 he received the University’s Most Distinguished Alumnus Award. A chair in Watkins’ name was endowed last year.

He was appointed to the National Board of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Faculty Development Program in 1983. The program seeks to increase the number of minority medical faculty nationally.

While at Johns Hopkins, Watkins was given the Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association Heritage Award for exceptional contributions and devotion of the university in 1999 followed by a national award by the Guidant Corporation for his pioneering work on the automatic defibrillator.

In 2008 he was honored by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators with the Nation Builders Award, along with then president-elect Barack Obama and James H. Meredith.

Watkins died in 2015. His nephew, Levi Garraway, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and assistant professor of Medicine, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, will receive the award on his behalf.

Neuzil, professor of Medicine and director, Center for Vaccine Development, Institute for Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has established a national and international reputation for her work in infectious disease and epidemiology.

After graduating summa cum laude from the University of Maryland in 1983 and receiving her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1987, where she was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, Neuzil completed her residency and fellowship training at Vanderbilt and was appointed the Hugh Morgan Chief Resident in Medicine. She received her MPH degree from VUSM in 1998.

Neuzil held academic appointments at both Vanderbilt and the University of Washington as an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist. She also spent a decade working with PATH, the leader in global health innovation. For nearly 40 years, PATH has been a pioneer in translating bold ideas into breakthrough health solutions, with a focus on child survival, maternal and reproductive health and infectious diseases.

Her research has focused on a variety of vaccines, including influenza, rotavirus and RSV, as well as other areas like maternal immunization, optimizing vaccine use and overcoming barriers to sustainable vaccine uptake in low resource settings.

Neuzil has led or been involved in pivotal vaccine trials that have influenced vaccine policy worldwide.

A strong advocate for translating research results into vaccine policies, Neuzil was a key driver in the many changes in the influenza policy over the last two decades in the United States, and on an international level, her research helped shape rotavirus vaccine policy.

She has published more than 150 scientific papers on vaccines and infectious diseases. Her extensive experience in domestic and international policy includes memberships on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the Pandemic Influenza Task Force for the Infectious Disease Society of America. She has worked with the World Health Organization, served as a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts’ rotavirus working group and served as a member of the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety working group on the safety of vaccines in pregnancy.

She currently chairs the steering committee for the CDC-sponsored Ebola vaccine trial in Sierra Leone.