June 26, 2009

Reporter profile: Teaching, discovery fuel Drake’s sense of wonder

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Wonder Drake, M.D., here in her Medical Center North laboratory, is investigating the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Reporter profile: Teaching, discovery fuel Drake’s sense of wonder

The look on a young patient's face turned out to be a defining moment in Wonder Drake's career.

Fresh from completing her residency at John Hopkins University, Drake, who graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, was an assistant professor of Medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham. She was teaching and deciphering tough clinical cases from her clinic at UAB Hospital.

Drake was content with her professional life until her second year in private practice, when the diagnosis of one patient rattled her. The diagnosis was not confusing; rather it was the epidemiology of the disease that was perplexing.

It was a case of sarcoidosis, a potentially fatal inflammatory disease that can affect any organ. It was not the first time she had seen the illness. As a matter of fact, she had become quite familiar with it, seeing a growing number of cases among her clinic population.

Teaching, mentoring and sharing knowledge are vital to Wonder Drake, M.D., right, here with colleagues, from left, Dia Beachboard, M.S., and Kyra Richter, Ph.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Teaching, mentoring and sharing knowledge are vital to Wonder Drake, M.D., right, here with colleagues, from left, Dia Beachboard, M.S., and Kyra Richter, Ph.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Sarcoidosis is most often seen in the lungs, but can also attack the heart, skin, liver and kidneys. Once considered a rare disorder, it is now labeled as a chronic immune disease afflicting people worldwide. About 5 percent to 10 percent of patients with sarcoidosis die.

The disease creates fibrous tissue in involved areas and over time the patient loses the ability to oxygenate the lungs.

“I remember the look on his face when I told him I thought we were headed to dialysis because sarcoid was taking over his kidneys so fast, so quickly,” recalled Drake. “There's not much that stops young people (the patient was in his 20s), but this disease took this man who was productive in society, had people depending on him, a wife and two children, who had been feeling fairly healthy — it stopped him in his tracks,” said Drake.

“It was the look on his face (that moved me). It's hard to explain,” she said shaking her head. “It made me think — we have got to figure this out.”

At about the same time that Drake's interest in researching the cause of sarcoidosis was peaking, Martin Blaser, M.D., then chief of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt Medical Center, wanted her to do a fellowship in Infectious Disease. But sarcoidosis was not on his agenda.

Volunteering at Riverside Seventh Day Adventist Church is one way that Drake brings her love of teaching and her faith together.  (photo by Anne Rayner)

Volunteering at Riverside Seventh Day Adventist Church is one way that Drake brings her love of teaching and her faith together. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“I remember telling him all about this dramatic case of sarcoid and how it acts like an infection and how we could use PCR (polymerase chain reaction) analysis on the pathologic tissue to identify infectious agents … and how it might be a bunk, but it might be real,” Drake said taking a breath. “And then I told him he had to help me with the research.

“He just laughed,” Drake said with a giggle. “And asked if I was sure I didn't want to do H. pylori (an infection of the stomach or small intestine).

“I told him I would come back on one condition — that he allow me to research the role of infectious agents in sarcoidosis.”

That was 10 years ago.


Searching for the cause

Drake, a 1994 graduate of VUSM, returned to her alma matter to embark on a two-year fellowship under Blaser, who is now the chair of Medicine at New York University. She is now an assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at VMC.

“Wonder is one of those fabulously interesting and accomplished faculty that only great departments of medicine get a chance to have on their faculty,” said Eric Neilson, M.D., chair of Medicine at Vanderbilt. “She is very passionate about her work and medicine needs more of that.”

Although her lab has not zeroed in on the cause of sarcoidosis, her team has made headway. Her background in Infectious Disease has been a plus.

“Up to this point, only lung doctors have studied sarcoidosis,” she said. “My training in ID has made me familiar with new technologies to try to answer the same questions. To me, it's really a matter of thinking about the problem in a different way.”

And it has paid off. She and her colleagues have found molecular and immunologic evidence of a novel mycobacterium in sarcoid specimens. Drake said the finding is an important one because it explains why traditional methods of histologic staining and culture have not identified an organism. And worldwide, research teams are beginning to corroborate these findings.

The disease has the highest incidence in Sweden; the second largest population of cases is in Japan and the United States comes in third.

Despite her initial hope that she and a team of researchers would be able to identify the bug that causes sarcoidosis within a 10-year time frame, she is not fazed. She is more determined than ever to tackle this daunting task.


Growing up right

Giving 100 percent is something Drake has always done. It's the way she was raised.
She grew up in Courtland, Ala., a cotton town with a population of about 800 people.

Drake and her husband, John, at home in Joelton with their twin boys, Miles, left, and Cameron. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Drake and her husband, John, at home in Joelton with their twin boys, Miles, left, and Cameron. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Although neither of her parents graduated from high school, education was a top priority in their household.

Drake is one of five children. She falls in the middle of two older brothers and two younger sisters.

“There wasn't a lot of opportunity in my hometown,” she said. “My parents believed grades were very, very important. And they were strict.

“They were the kind of parents who, when an adult came into the room, a child had to give up their seat. Basically, when they told you to do something, you did it. You know what I mean? They ran a tight ship.”

Growing up, Drake observed her parents, Neeley and Grady Puryear, always helping others. Although it was not a written rule, a willingness to assist others was among the many tenets that became life lessons for Drake.

“I can remember people coming to our house in the middle of the night asking for help,” said Drake. “My parents helped a lot of people, even when it was inconvenient for them. My parents were well respected in our community.

“My whole family had these rules like 'don't ever let someone leave your house hungry,’ or ‘don't ever try to get revenge, God will make it even' and 'if there was any way I could help someone, I should.'

“These rules are a big part of me,” said Drake. “I appreciate that they taught me those things.”


Fostering education

Her willingness to offer a helping hand is evident today. Soon after joining the VMC faculty in 2001, she started a mentoring program in her lab to introduce science to college and high school students who otherwise might not get the exposure.

It doesn't have an official name. Drake really hasn't had time to think about that part of it. At first she sought out students, but now, they find her.

“I love that if we can get these kids here, who are incredibly bright and who have not been exposed to this world, and give them an opportunity, they will soar.

“When these students come here, because of their background, they think about problems differently and they bring ideas to the table that are novel ways of thinking about problems.

Drake with longtime friend Juliet Faulkner.

Drake with longtime friend Juliet Faulkner.

“It is one of the things I like about my job. It affords me an opportunity to show young people that there are other opportunities in life and that careers in science are fabulous.”

Drake's program has shepherded 25-30 students through college and on to graduate and medical schools.

Charlene Hawkins, 26, is one of Drake's mentees. Hawkins was a student at Amherst College when she began working in Drake's lab in the summers. Now a graduate student at Vanderbilt, she is nearing her second year in the lab of Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., and is working on her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences.

“Dr. Drake is a great role model for becoming a professional black woman,” said Hawkins, who has always wanted to be a doctor. “I didn't realize that research and medicine could go hand in hand. You can be a doctor and a scientist. Those careers are not contradictions.

“She showed me that,” Hawkins said. “Dr. Drake is certain that I will become successful. It's nice to know someone who is successful and believes in you.”

Hawkins plans to enroll in medical school and is interested in pediatrics.

“I am thankful that I have been able to work with (Drake). Through her I have seen how she balances her life. She is kind and fair. She has a great work ethic and is able to balance being a wife, mother, seeing patients in the hospital and conducting research. It really is all about balance.”


Keeping things simple

Drake's secret to juggling life's responsibilities is simplicity.

“The things that I am most passionate about, I have right now — my research and my children,” she said. “Maybe it sounds unambitious, but I want to do these two things very well.”

On a professional level, Drake wants to figure out the cause of sarcoid.

“I think a lot of what we are learning will be important for other diseases like Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis,” she said. “The pathophysiology of a lot of these autoimmune diseases is similar to sarcoid. It really will impact society if we can figure out the cause and enable patients to regain their health.”

As for her personal goal, it's all about her twin boys, Cameron and Miles.

“You have a finite amount of time to influence your kids,” Drake said. “I want my sons to grow up and be happy, healthy and caring adults. If I can help them embody or embrace caring about the happiness in others and themselves, they will be able to carry forward making sure people have a fair chance at life.”

The Drake twins are busy — not just because of their extracurricular activities of church, music and karate, but because they are seven-year-old boys who live on six acres with a garden, wildlife and adventure.

Within minutes of their home they can ride horses or go canoeing or hiking.

“They are 100 percent boys,” laughed Drake. “When I am home it is family time. They have my undivided attention. There is never a moment in my life when there is nothing to do.”

John, her husband of 11 years who is attending VU Law School, agreed:

“She is such an attentive mom,” he said. “She is so busy, but when she is home with the kids, she gives them a lot of her time. You can tell she really wants them to succeed. One thing I can say about Wonder is she is focused and dedicated to what she is doing.”

He laughed when thinking about her devotion to work when she was placed on bed rest before having the twins.

“She would go around work and church — telling people she was on bed rest, but she was never really resting. It became a running joke.”

Drake recalled the story a little differently and said she was intent on turning in a paper and needed a little more time to complete it prior to the arrival of the babies.

After all, it wasn't until she was further along in her pregnancy that the couple learned they were having twins.

“I would only come to work for about four hours a day and I would work as hard as I could to get that done,” she explained. “I really wanted that paper out of the way so I could focus on them when they got here.”

The paper was accepted a couple of weeks after she returned from maternity leave.

Quality time for the family is crucial to the Drakes. Here, Cameron, center, questions the legality of a move in Monopoly while his brother, Miles, counts money. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Quality time for the family is crucial to the Drakes. Here, Cameron, center, questions the legality of a move in Monopoly while his brother, Miles, counts money. (photo by Anne Rayner)



Drake rolled her eyes at the memory. In the end, she said, everything worked out fine, which is a recurrent scenario in her life.

“When I was little, I thought I wanted to be a teacher,” said Drake. “I envisioned myself as the Magic School Bus' Miss Frizzle.

“I thought I'd teach my students all about the world,” explained Drake, eyes wide with excitement. “I was going to show them how science affects everything.”

Miss Frizzle of the Scholastic book and TV show fame takes her class on adventures to the solar system, under the earth and into the human body. The children are allowed to explore the world of science in an interactive manner.

“So I went to college with the idea of being a science teacher. But I didn't do an education major because I really did want to be a great science teacher. So I was a microbiology major instead.”

Of course most of Drakes' classes were full of students interested in medicine. One night she was invited to attend one of their pre-med meetings. By the second gathering, she was hooked.

“Something in me said ‘this is what I am supposed to be doing,’” she said. “It's hard to explain, but it felt right.”

Juliet Faulkner, Drake's best friend since the first week of school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, said she had no doubts about Drake's future.

“She is 100 percent in whatever she does,” said Faulkner, a physical therapist in Atlanta. “I always knew she would be a physician and a good one. But going into the lab, I really thought she might do that transitionally. I admit that I didn't think she would continue doing it.

“But it's who she is,” she laughed. “She likes to complete things and do her absolute best. In the lab, the job is never done.”

Faulkner said Drake was always the go-to person in college. After she made the official change to pre-med in her second year at Alabama, Drake was in great demand. It didn't hurt that she was also the valedictorian of her high school graduating class, a Presidential Scholar and inducted into the honorary society, Phi Beta Kappa while at Alabama.

“She was very smart and everyone was always trying to find her to ask her questions,” said Faulkner. “Poor girl could not get any studying done because of all the interruptions!”

The demands on her time haven't diminished, so Drake has to make time for herself, even if it means waking up at 4:30 a.m.

“I run 3 miles,” said Drake proudly. “Well, I run some and walk some. But it's 3 miles. I felt myself slowing down physically in my late 30s. I realized in order to maintain my health I would have to be intentional about exercising.”

Rising early also gives her one-on-one time with God, she said. A Seventh Day Adventist, Drake's faith is a part of everything she does and serves as a source of great inspiration for her.

“I would say her relationship with God drives her the most,” said her husband. “She prays for guidance for everything she does, whether it is for work or home.”
Drake's daily prayers vary. But one request stays the same.

“I pray that He will help me to be a good person,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot of growing to do.

“But I also think a lot about when I grow old what do I want to look back and say I have done? Honestly, I want to say I did my very best to raise my kids, and if we don't find a cause for sarcoid, then we made a significant dent. But above all, I want to look back and know I really did help people.”

Drake doesn't know what ultimately happened to the young patient she diagnosed more than a decade ago. But she will never forget his face or her feeling of urgency to make a difference.