Whitley embraces the perfect combination of learning, collaboration and progress

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RS8087 Richard Whitley 23 stream FINALRichard Whitley, M.D.When Richard Whitley, M.D., was a student in the School of Medicine in 1972, he was not unlike the more than 600 enrolled now. He completed an internship in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Alabama and a fellowship in infectious diseases/virology at UAB, and then began exploring his options for where to start his career.

His decision to remain in Birmingham, however, was based on a bit of unique advice: Then-chair of the department of Pediatrics John W. “Bill” Benton encouraged Whitley to stay at UAB for a while after graduation.And so he did — for 45 years.

Now, Dr. Whitley, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and co-director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, is one of four faculty being honored this week for four-and-a-half decades of service.

Also being honored are Vithal Ghanta, Ph.D., professor of biology; Jerry Spenney, M.D., professor of medicine and physician in the UAB Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology; and Joseph Van Matre, professor in the Collat School of Business.

The right opportunities
“It’s been an interesting journey, that’s for sure,” Whitley said.

“You don’t get work done in a vacuum. You’ve got to work with people whom you share things with. I’ve always thought it was great to have such terrific colleagues, and I’ve never been let down by that.”

He’s had job offers at other places, including an invitation to become the chair of pediatrics at Stanford University, but he never had a reason to leave UAB.

“I’ve not felt a desire to move,” he said. “UAB has treated me exceedingly well.”

Whitley’s first office was in what is now the Chauncey Sparks Center. That building, plus the original University Hospital and the Old Hillman building, were all that comprised UAB’s medical campus at that time.

“Everything between Children’s [Hospital of Alabama] and the old University Hospital is new, and everything north of Sixth Avenue South is new,” Whitley said.

To produce good work, Whitley said, you have to surround yourself with people intent on doing the same thing. UAB has always provided him with those opportunities, from his first years with Benton until today.

“You don’t get work done in a vacuum,” he said. “You’ve got to work with people whom you share things with. I’ve always thought it was great to have such terrific colleagues, and I’ve never been let down by that. Bill Benton recruited me to stay here and kept offering me job opportunities I couldn’t turn down. Charlie [Alford] offered me research opportunities that proved invaluable, and Dr. Ralph Tiller taught me how to be a physician.”

As Alabama’s largest single employer and an institution with an annual economic impact of $5 billion, UAB is a force in both the Birmingham community and across the state, something he said has grown during his time at UAB.

Employees with 20 or more years of service will be honored during the annual Service Awards Program luncheon noon March 3 in the Hill Student Center Ballroom. A list of recipients is online.

“I’ve certainly seen UAB impact the community,” Whitley said. “As banks moved away from being headquartered in Birmingham, the medical center became the dominant player in both the state and the community. It’s certainly helped the economy.”

Whitley now heads clinical trials of antiviral therapies for diseases in both children and adults and therapies for herpes virus infection. He also is the co-director and co-founder of the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, a collaborative effort to facilitate the development of drugs using resources available at UAB and Southern Research. According to Whitley, that work has the potential to produce new treatments for cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease.

And for those 600-plus medical students hoping to find a lifelong career like Whitley’s, he has just one piece of advice to go with that first good job.

“Enjoy it and make the most of it,” he said, like he has done at UAB. “UAB’s atmosphere is one of learning, one of collaboration, one of terrific friendships and, finally, one that represents an institution that allows me to do my work.”