Selwyn Vickers 4 LRLater this week, I will have the pleasure of presenting surgery grand rounds at Yale School of Medicine. With Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming up Jan. 21, I am taking the opportunity to talk about an early champion of diversity in medicine and a seminal figure in my own medical training: Levi Watkins Jr., M.D. A Montgomery native, Dr. Watkins broke new ground all along his journey to becoming a renowned cardiac surgeon and civil rights figure. In 1966, he became the first African-American student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In 1978, he became the first African-American chief resident in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He performed the world’s first implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator in a patient in 1980, and he helped develop the cardiac arrhythmia service at Hopkins.

During his 35-year career at Hopkins, he made increasing diversity at the medical school a priority; four years after joining its admissions committee in 1979, he helped minority representation rise by 400 percent. Dr. Watkins was a critical figure in making sure my Hopkins roommate—also an African-American man from Alabama—and I succeeded in Hopkins undergrad and got into Hopkins medical school, and he supported us throughout our training.

Dr. Watkins understood a fundamental shortcoming in our society—that talent is distributed equally but opportunity is not. This disparity matters even more in medicine, because lack of representation has real health effects. According to a report from the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce, the fact that the nation’s health professions have not kept pace with changing demographics may be an even greater cause of disparities in health access and outcomes than the persistent lack of health insurance for many Americans. I look forward to sharing lessons from Dr. Watkins’ remarkable life and perspective with Yale’s faculty and trainees.

One of my top priorities since becoming dean is promoting precision medicine and genomic science. I’m excited to tell you about a new exhibit at the McWane Science Center sponsored by UAB Medicine. “GENOME: Unlocking Life’s Code” is an immersive, high-tech exhibit that captures the revolutionary nature of genomic science. GENOME will premiere to the Birmingham public Jan. 19, providing visitors with a 4,400-square-foot exhibit that helps unravel the mysteries behind their own genetic roadmaps.

A “Faces of Medical Genomics Careers in Alabama” exhibit created by the Alabama Genomic Health Initiative, a partnership between UAB Medicine and HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, will also make its debut at McWane as part of the GENOME exhibit. This custom display showcases the diverse genomic medicine careers and leaders in Alabama, geared to a child’s perspective.

Finally, the 2018 School of Medicine Annual Report is now available on our website. In it, you’ll learn about a few of the people and programs that made the past year truly remarkable. I also hope you will join me via livestream when I deliver my annual State of the School address on Wednesday, Jan. 30, at noon. I encourage you to look through the report and tune in to State of the School--I think you’ll be as proud of our accomplishments as I am.

Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., FACS
Senior Vice President for Medicine
Dean, UAB School of Medicine
James C. Lee Jr. Endowed Chair
University of Alabama at Birmingham