February 27, 2009

Reporter profile: For vaccine researcher Crowe, every hour counts

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Pediatric Infectious Diseases researcher James Crowe Jr., M.D., in his Medical Center North lab. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Reporter profile: For vaccine researcher Crowe, every hour counts

Put simply, James Crowe Jr., M.D., creates vaccines to treat common childhood infections.

It's more than a job, an occupation or a career. It's a duty, a mission, a passion deeply rooted in his experiences on medical missions in Africa, where he saw firsthand the devastation infectious diseases can cause.

“Daily, if not almost hourly, I feel an urgency about this,” Crowe said. “I have calculated how many hundreds of children die of pneumonia and diarrhea every hour of every day. Until we do something about this, the blood is on our hands.

Teaching is improtant to James Crowe Jr., M.D., top left, here with, clockwise from top right, medical student Mohammed Aiyegbo, John Stone, Ph.D., and medical student Mike Lindquist. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Teaching is improtant to James Crowe Jr., M.D., top left, here with, clockwise from top right, medical student Mohammed Aiyegbo, John Stone, Ph.D., and medical student Mike Lindquist. (photo by Susan Urmy)

“Each physician has their own calling. For me, every day is urgent to press on to develop tests and bring to fruition vaccines that will end infectious diseases in children. It's a personal commitment I made. That is my role.”

Crowe is a professor of Pediatrics, Microbiology and Immunology at Vanderbilt Medical Center, director of the Vanderbilt Alliance for Nanomedicine, director of the Vanderbilt Program in Vaccine Sciences and Ingram Professor of Cancer Research.

But titles don't tell the whole story. After all, what’s in a name?

Well, no matter how it's spelled, seeing the name “Jim Crowe” printed on an ID badge, in cursive on a white lab coat or hearing the name in conversation provokes a strange reaction, especially when coupled with a tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired white guy.

Jim Crow was the law of the land in the United States between 1876 and 1965, mandating separate but equal status for blacks and members of other non-white racial groups. It is also a typeface, a tool for bending rails and a rap group.

Crowe in his office, surrounded by scientific journals and some favorite pieces of artwork, including a print by Vasily Kandinsky and outsider art by Hawkins Bolden. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Crowe in his office, surrounded by scientific journals and some favorite pieces of artwork, including a print by Vasily Kandinsky and outsider art by Hawkins Bolden. (photo by Dana Johnson)

James C. Crow, M.D., was also a Scottish chemist-physician who created the sour mash process for making bourbon whiskey.

Vanderbilt's Crowe was named for his father, who, like his siblings, received Biblical names from Crowe’s grandfather, a Baptist minister in Nashville.

Known professionally as James Crowe so that he would not offend patients, the Southern-bred physician became acclimated to his given name long ago. But he still recalls the day he learned why his name caused such a stir, and it had nothing to do with Kentucky whiskey.

“I grew up during busing in Winston Salem, North Carolina,” said Crowe. “I can remember it was very uncomfortable as a child because of the common term Jim Crow, even though I was called Jimmy by my parents. My friends truncated it (to Jim) and I didn't know much better.

“I remember when I was in the third grade we used to have classroom radio programs we listened to. I recall a particular segment that was about segregation and diversity, and it was a whole 45 minutes on the Jim Crow laws, which was pretty traumatic to me.

“It was really the first time that I remember knowing about the association of the name. I just felt incredibly uncomfortable to learn about that.”

In time, many have discovered the simple irony of it all.

Choosing a path

Crowe's childhood was rather unremarkable. He is the oldest of three children. He was involved in his church — choir, hand bells and youth group. He was a Boy Scout and played Little League Baseball, a love that stuck with him through college. He spent his first two years at Davidson playing the sport for the Wildcats, where he juggled his pre-med requirements with his desire to play ball.

Eventually his path to medicine won out.

“My pre-med curriculum interfered,” he said. “I just couldn't make practice and do my labs. I knew it wasn't going to work the day I was in organic chemistry lab. We had to analyze our extraction of aspirin using an instrument, and there was a line at the instrument. I remember asking my professor if I could break in line because I had to go to baseball practice.

“He said 'no, you are out of luck'. So then I was late to practice and my coach was saying if I kept coming late to practice I was never going to play. I realized something had to give, so I dropped baseball.”

Crowe figured he was more interested in academics when he later was named as the conference player with the highest GPA.

Carving out time to be together is important to the entire Crowe family, from left, James, Catherine, 15, Lisa, and Stephen, 18. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Carving out time to be together is important to the entire Crowe family, from left, James, Catherine, 15, Lisa, and Stephen, 18. (photo by Anne Rayner)

He laughs now saying he wasn't destined for a pro baseball career anyway.

According to his mother, Frances Sakowicz, Crowe's life has always been one characterized by dedication, thoughtfulness and discipline.

“Jimmy has such a straight trajectory in life,” said his mother. “You know how your life has many forks and bends and changes? Jimmy's life has been the opposite. He has steadfastly held to what he wants to do. Life's circumstances have not blocked him.

“But you have to have that drive within you and he does. His self discipline and his willingness for deferred gratification … he can see the goal a long way away. He has understood that concept for a very long time.”

It is that way of thinking that carries Crowe through life.

His mother said her son, the only child for five years, thrived in a primarily adult environment. There, he tagged along with his mother, who was the consummate learner, volunteer and explorer, and in his teen years he accompanied his father, a pediatric radiologist, to work.

The time spent there piqued his interest in science and lit the fire that feeds his passion for making a difference.

“I followed my heart in terms of what was interesting to me,” said Crowe. “My dad basically told me not to go into medicine, because at the time the culture was changing and moving more and more into a business and billing arrangement, which he found less satisfying.

“Oddly, my career has become more science and less and less medicine. I wanted to be involved not so much focusing on the profit (of medicine), but on things that made people's lives better. I saw the route for that through medicine. It was more of a practical way for me to affect the world.”

Crowe and his colleagues at Vanderbilt have:
• isolated human antibodies from survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic — the longest lasting b-cell immunity ever described
• developed and tested a large number of promising vaccine candidates for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
• isolated human antibodies to HIV that might be useful for therapy, and
• dissected how the human immune response to rotavirus protects infants from diarrhea.

Crowe, who always dreamed of being a medical missionary in Africa, is hugely dedicated to saving the lives of children in developing countries.

“I made a personal commitment my senior year in college, a commitment to faith,” Crowe said. “My real career plan at that point became to work in the developing world. I had a real interest, a passion, for children in Africa. It seemed to be a place I could make an impact.”

A perfect match

Although driven and focused on his work, Crowe is more motivated and feels the greatest accomplishment about his wife and family. It is what he values most.

Crowe, 47, and his wife, Lisa, met during their first year of medical school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. They were introduced while attending a Halloween party. He was dressed as a punk rocker and she was Jane from Tarzan fame.

Jim and Lisa Crowe on Assateague Island, Virginia.

Jim and Lisa Crowe on Assateague Island, Virginia.

They began spending more time together. It wasn't until the third year of medical school that they began dating. A pending Match Day decision prompted Crowe to ask Lisa to marry him. They married in 1987, the week before graduation. The pair skipped the commencement, opting to honeymoon in Europe.

They matched at UNC and spent an additional three-and-a-half years there, Lisa in internal/family medicine and he in pediatrics, before heading to Bethesda, Maryland in 1990 where Crowe completed his fellowship in virology with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I think what attracted me (to him) was his big shoulders and blond hair,” said Lisa Crowe. “Both of which he probably got from working summers in Africa on medical mission.

“We are both kind of quiet people, but he is so intelligent and has a very strong faith. We really like being together. It's hard to describe,” said Lisa, who practices family medicine at Faith Family Clinic in Nashville.

They have two children, Catherine, 15, and Stephen, 18. Both attend University School of Nashville. Catherine, a cheerleader, is in 10th grade. Stephen, a senior, is interested in becoming an electrical engineer and enjoys skeet shooting with his dad.

The power of art

“Did you know Jim collects garbage?” asked Lisa. “We have a small collection. The good ones are displayed in our house as art. I think it's great. That's something we have in common, two people who think garbage is interesting and attractive.”

Art has been a lifelong interest for Crowe.

“My first memory of his lively interest in art was his Crayola murals on the walls of the stairwells,” said Crowe's mother. “I can remember washing them off, but I don't remember ever scolding him or using negative words, because quite frankly, I liked the drawings. They would come down, but they went back up,” she said, chuckling.

Crowe collects art — tribal African pieces, Caribbean and Haitian influenced objects and outsider art by untrained artists, typically of African-American descent.

“I've always been very interested in visual arts, sculpture and painting,” said Crowe. “But I was just blown away by the beauty of outsider art.

“Art means a lot to me in terms of how I think about life. It influences my work to some extent because a lot of what I do in terms of molecular biology or cell biology has to do with imaging or imaging reconstruction or three-dimensional mechanisms.

“I really like laboratory projects that have some aesthetic component to them where you get beautiful pictures or images.”

Sadly, the image that resonates most for Crowe isn't beautiful or pleasing to the eye, but it is gripping, breathtaking and inspiring. Difficult to share with others who have not faced similar encounters, the image is seared into his mind and heart — that of himself handing a dead child to his mother knowing that the infection that took his life in Africa was treatable, even preventable.

“Parents all around the world are the same — they love their children,” said Crowe. “If you have never personally experienced looking into someone's eyes and saying that something could have been done about this, but wasn't, and your child is dead … to be there and see that loss of a child, I can say it changed my life. I still shed tears thinking about particular children who died in my arms. You don't get over that.”

It's what gives Crowe the energy to come to work every day.

He is happy he chose Vanderbilt in 1995. Impressed with the collegial interactions of the faculty and attracted by the diversity of students, patients and staff from all over the world, Crowe felt like he was home.

And he was, sort of.

Born in Nashville, he has joked about his beginning and his end all in the same building.

“I was born on the fourth floor of Medical Center North,” he said. “I work on the second floor and I'm worried that someday I'm going to slump over at my desk and complete the life circle, all within 50 feet.”

Crowe after crossing the finish line of the Ironman triathlon in Coer d’ Alene, Idaho, last July.

Crowe after crossing the finish line of the Ironman triathlon in Coer d’ Alene, Idaho, last July.

Pushing the limits

Although his dry wit helps tone down the seriousness of his job, both his wife and mother say he deals with stress methodically — focusing on one source of relaxation at a time.
In the past it was scuba diving, followed by an interest in the dulcimer. When he turned 40, it became endurance sports.

“Part of what I enjoy is exploring my limits and fears,” said Crowe. “It's a very long 12- or 13-hour day in an ironman triathlon and there can be some dark moments, but you learn to push through it. It has helped me professionally with persistence. It helps knowing that some days you just do what needs to be done.”

Rusty McCain has trained with Crowe for the last six years, which translates to hundreds of hours of talking, sharing and ruminating.

“First of all, Jim is a genuine person and he's extremely intelligent,” said McCain. “But he doesn't let that get in the way of being a great person,” he said.

“I like his dry sense of humor and very laid back personality. He also has an ability that I respect, from the standpoint of training, to stick to something and really focus.

“I really appreciate that because I have learned from him.”
McCain said Crowe enjoys the challenge of attacking monumental tasks.

It will come in handy in June when Crowe jumps into the choppy water during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco. He'll swim 1.5 miles to the San Francisco shore, bike 18 miles and finish with an 8-mile run.

“This one kind of scares me,” Crowe admits. “Swimming is not my strongest skill. You just gotta go for it,” he said with a furrowed brow.

McCain won't be joining his buddy in that event, but said he admires him for the confidence and tenacity he exemplifies.

“I think he has added to my life,” said McCain. “I always know that I am going to have a friend who is going to offer me a smile. There is a comfort level from him. Anytime you are around him, you know it's going to be good.

“I tell you what, if he is the kind of person in his research that he is in a triathlon, then he'll come up with some really neat stuff.”