President Ray Watts and the Future of UAB

By Matt Windsor

sp2013 cover1UAB president Ray Watts  Somewhere outside Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta are homes with lovely gardens, lovingly tended by a physician with a flashlight.

At each stop on his path from a prestigious neurology residency to the presidency of UAB, Ray L. Watts, M.D., has spent his limited spare time coaxing the best out of his backyards. Any doctor can tell you that gardening is a great blend of exercise and stress relief. Most gardeners do their work while the sun shines, but Watts has rarely had that luxury. “I’ll look outside at night, and he’ll be out there,” says his wife, Nancy. “He has a vision, and then he just creates.”

“I like to grow beautiful things,” Watts says, simply. But those who know him best say this is less a hobby than the outgrowth of a lifetime habit—for Watts, beautiful results are just another example of the power of careful planning, hard work, and devotion to detail. 

In the 1990s, Watts helped build a world-renowned movement disorders program and department of neurology at Emory University in Atlanta. It doubled in size, and then did it again, blooming from 10 faculty to more than 70. In 2003, Watts returned to UAB, his alma mater, as chair of the Department of Neurology. Here, he built a powerhouse research team that has been involved in every major new treatment for Parkinson’s disease. In 2010, he was selected as dean of the UAB School of Medicine and immediately launched a strategic planning process with the goal of advancing UAB’s position as one of America’s leading medical centers. 

In February 2013, Watts was selected as UAB’s seventh president, following the departure of Carol Z. Garrison, Ph.D., in the fall of 2012. “He has a broad vision,” says Charles D. Perry Jr., principal of Birmingham-based Highland Associates, who served on the presidential search committee. “He’s not afraid to dream big dreams because he has the enthusiasm, leadership skills, work ethic and determination to follow through.”      

sp2013 cover2A renowned researcher and clinician
in his own right, Watts (shown
here with investigator Andrew West)
has energized UAB’s vast medical 
enterprise with his ambitious vision
and passion for translational science.
In his first month on the job, Watts inked major partnerships with the City of Birmingham to foster smart, healthy, sustainable development and to give area high school graduates greater access to UAB. “While we serve a diverse population with students from at least 100 countries, UAB remains committed to our local communities right here in Birmingham,” Watts says. 

The commitment is deeply personal for Watts. “He has a huge heart for the marginalized,” notes Theresa Bruno, board president of UAB’s Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center (ASC). When the ASC’s ArtPlay teaching program debuted ArtReach, a project that brought dance and other art classes to homeless and disadvantaged children in the neighboring Woodlawn community, “it really struck a chord with him,” Bruno recalls. “I gave a talk to the downtown Rotary Club, and five minutes after I got back to my office, Ray called and said, ‘I want to support this.’ He was the first one to give money for the project.”

While UAB has long been known as a research powerhouse, Watts is eager to cultivate excellence in the arts and humanities as well, Perry adds. “He likes to say that a university is more than science and math,” says Perry. “The arts are very important, culturally but also for the economic well-being of the city. I served with Ray on the board of the Alabama Symphony, and the first thing he did was to start the ‘Doctors for the ASO’ program. He worked hard to get physicians and other related individuals involved. One reason is that he genuinely likes music. But he also recognizes that as we recruit senior scientists and executives to Birmingham, having cultural options like the symphony is crucial.” 


“We've got excellent programs across this campus, and we're going to invest to make them even better.”

In the past three years, “we’ve brought some very innovative performances to the ASC,” Bruno adds. “Ray is always behind projects that are innovative, that are supportive to the community, stretch us in the arts, and give us a national name.” 

“We’re innovating every day at UAB,” Watts says. “Not just in medical research, but in the arts and humanities. We’ve got excellent programs across this campus, and we’re going to invest to make them even better. Our entire leadership team is fully behind that common goal. We cannot be excellent in everything, but we can be excellent in many things, and we will.”

You could say that Ray Watts and UAB grew up together. Watts, the son of a businessman and a homemaker, arrived first. He was born in Birmingham’s West End neighborhood in 1953, less than 20 years after the University of Alabama opened an extension center downtown. 

Like many Birmingham residents of his generation, Watts first saw his future in industry. “I loved math and science, and that’s why I went into engineering,” he says. After graduating from West End High School, he earned a full scholarship to UAB, which had become an independent institution only a few years before, in 1969. “I visited a number of different colleges, but UAB had such a welcoming, positive environment,” Watts says. “And there was a real can-do sort of attitude.” 

sp2013 cover7After graduating from
Birmingham's West End
High School, Watts received
a full scholarship to UAB.
Photo courtesy of UAB Archives
The summer after his sophomore year, Watts worked in a biomedical engineering laboratory at UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center. “They were studying speech and articulation—how to understand both normal and diseased speech—and that got me interested in the human body as a complex system,” Watts says. 

That experience put Watts on a new path. He added biomedical engineering classes such as quantitative physiology to his schedule, but he didn’t have time to take biology or organic chemistry, two cornerstone courses for pre-med students, before the annual Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in the summer before his senior year. “Everybody thought I was crazy to take the MCAT then,” he says. 

Watts performed respectably on the exam and soon found himself with a choice: He had been accepted to the prestigious Ph.D. engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. He couldn’t decide, until MIT called one day looking for an immediate answer. “I like to pause and think before I say something,” Watts recalls. “But I had to make the decision right then. I said, ‘No, I’m going to medical school.’ And it has worked out beautifully.”

In his first year of medical school, Watts discovered his career passion. “I fell in love with neuroscience,” he says, “and that love has never left me.” A leading physician gave a talk about the biology of mental retardation, Watts recalls. “He made the science and medicine come alive. And I said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’” 

Watts is excited about the possibilities UAB is offering the next generation of neuroscientists. The university’s undergraduate program in neuroscience, started in 2009 and the only one in Alabama, has been growing rapidly. There are currently 78 neuroscience majors at UAB, and interest is flooding in from students around the country, Watts notes. 


“UAB will continue to add programs that will attract the best and brightest, not only from Alabama but across the country and around the world.”

In March, he announced that the Department of Neurobiology, which houses the program along with the Department of Psychology, will become a joint department between the School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences, giving students access to instruction from multiple scholars with varied backgrounds. The neuroscience program gives undergraduates “the kind of college experience most students could only get from Harvard or Stanford,” says David Sweatt, Ph.D., chair of the neurobiology department and Evelyn F. McKnight Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging. 

“We have a wealth of excellence in the basic sciences at UAB, and we see it as our mission to expand educational opportunities and nurture students who will help solve the world’s scientific and medical dilemmas,” Watts says. Based on the success of the neuroscience program and UAB’s new undergraduate major in public health, “UAB will continue to add programs that will attract the best and brightest, not only from Alabama but across the country and around the world,” Watts adds. Possibilities include undergraduate programs in genetics, immunology, microbiology, informatics, and more. 

Watts notes that UAB’s arts programs are also set to take a leap forward with the 2013 opening of the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (IVA). Located across the street from the Alys Stephens Center, the IVA will include new studios and classroom space, plus three spacious galleries. “It will be the final piece in a cultural hub that will attract new students and faculty as well as patrons and artists,” Watts says.  

By the early 1980s, Watts had moved to Boston for a coveted residency position in neurology at the world-famous Massachusetts General Hospital. He had decided on a career in movement disorders—puzzling diseases such as Parkinson’s that were poorly understood and ultimately devastating. 

His energy and intelligence attracted the attention of his superiors. But a different side caught the eye of Nancy Angelo, a young nurse who had also earned a spot at Mass General. “One day I was walking by the room of a sick patient, and he was sitting on the bed, holding this little lady’s hand and talking to her, and I thought, ‘Who is that?’” Nancy Watts recalls. “He was so kind, polite, and compassionate.”

Ray Watts, listening to this memory, laughs. “It was my Southern upbringing,” he says. He was eager to show off his roots, too. “The first place he took me was to Birmingham,” Nancy says. “And the first thing he showed me, before we even met his parents, was UAB. He drove me through the campus and said, ‘Isn’t this the most wonderful place?’”

It would be years before he would return home for good. After his residency, Watts worked in Washington for two years at the National Institutes of Health. Then he faced another tough choice. He was recruited to join the movement disorders program at Columbia University in New York—the top program in the country, if not the world. But he had also received a call from the chair of neurology at Emory University, who had little to offer but opportunity. Just as when he chose medical school over MIT, Watts took “the road less traveled,” he says. 

Ray and Nancy worked together as doctor and nurse at Emory, treating patients, building up a research program, and working tirelessly to educate patients, families, and donors about Parkinson’s. 

The Watts family blossomed in Atlanta, expanding to five children: three boys and two girls. They were always part of the family business. “They grew up going to work with us,” says Watts. “We’d have Parkinson’s support groups on Saturday mornings, and I’d be nailing in the signs with one hand and holding a baby in the other. As they got a little bigger, I’d go in to work on the weekend, and they would come with me to the hospital and the labs.”

“He wouldn’t just bring them in to watch,” notes Jorge Juncos, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Emory, who has known Watts since their residencies at Harvard in the early 1980s. “He would engage them in small research projects—giving each one the opportunity to be exposed to the work. Some loved it, some didn’t, and for those who said, ‘This isn’t my cup of tea,’ he would respect that.”

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4

Two of the Watts children have joined their parents in medicine. The couple’s oldest son, Justin, is completing an oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, and their oldest daughter, Emily, is in her third year of medical school at Emory. The other two boys—Alex and Evan—are in finance in Washington, D.C., and architecture and real estate in New York, respectively. And their youngest daughter, Olivia, is a junior at Boston University. 

“All the kids told me he led by example at home just as he did in the office,” says Juncos. “He put in a phenomenal number of hours in his research and patient care over the years, but he still managed to be a present parent to all of his kids. I don’t know how he did it, frankly, but he made it work. I think it really helped to have Nancy working so closely with him.”

When Watts moved to UAB in 2003, Nancy remained his nurse. The duo traveled throughout the Southeast, offering education and hope to thousands of patients and their clinicians. “Nancy and I would educate people about new treatments and what we were doing in the lab,” Watts says. “They knew that we were working six and seven days a week and that we were committed to curing Parkinson’s. And we’re going to cure it; it’s just a matter of when. We still have that same level of excitement we’ve always had—actually more, because we’ve made so much progress.” Nancy retired in November 2012, but she says she hasn’t lost her own passion for patient care: She is now serving on the Board of Visitors for the UAB School of Nursing.

Ray and Nancy Watts’s patients weren’t ready to give them up. “It’s only now, nearly 10 years after he left, that I have started to see many of Ray’s patients” at Emory, says Juncos. “They were so loyal to him and Nancy and their work that they would fly to Birmingham on a regular basis to see them. They only stopped when they got too old or sick to travel any more.”

That magnetism, fueled in equal parts by “genuineness, enthusiasm, energy, a sense of humor, and an uncompromising sense of fairness,” marked Watts’s dealings with everyone from faculty and donors to students and the department’s janitorial staff, Juncos says. “Something has been lost at universities as we have adopted more of a business model,” he explains. “Ray has resisted that, and I think that will show in his presidency. He gets satisfaction from watching individuals, as well as the institution, succeed. He’s had an enormous amount of success, but he has also done so without stepping on anyone else. He has demonstrated that you can succeed while bringing out the best in others as well.”

sp2013 cover13

The Doctor Is In

Ray Watts says that as soon as he became dean, colleagues asked him when he would step back from actively seeing patients. He persevered then, seeing patients every Thursday afternoon even as he assumed the hectic schedule of a top administrator. He plans to keep seeing patients as UAB’s president. “I love being a physician and taking care of folks, helping them and sharing with them new treatments that change their lives,” Watts says.

Watts is actually using that refreshing personal outlook as the centerpiece of his strategic plan, explains UAB ophthalmology researcher Crawford Downs, Ph.D. “Dr. Watts is a really smart guy,” says Downs, a pioneering specialist in the biomechanics of glaucoma who joined UAB in November 2012. “He looked around at this university and said that our history of collaboration and lack of politics and egos are a competitive advantage. What we can do here we couldn’t do at a university or research center where everyone is looking out for themselves. He is bringing together truly collaborative teams to tackle problems that are very nasty—like glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness in the developed world—that no single investigator could attack on his or her own.

“People don’t go into research for the salary,” Downs continues. “They either want an opportunity to help, or they have a big ego. People interested in science, in working with others to tackle serious problems, are tremendously attracted to UAB. It’s a research powerhouse without the egos that usually go along with that.”       

The Watts family has always known exactly where it is going. So do the people who work for Ray Watts. “I’ve always been a goal-setter,” he says. “I like to think about where we are and where we’re heading and how we’re going to get there. I did that when I first started my own laboratory, and at every level in my career. If you don’t have goals and a plan, you’re not going to be as successful as you could be.”

Watts doesn’t limit this approach to working hours. “He writes his goals on index cards, and they’re all over the house,” says Nancy. “Those are my little action plans,” Watts explains. “I probably started that in high school.” Every year, he encourages his family to pick up the habit. “In January, he writes a beautiful letter to the children, and he always says, ‘Get your goals together!’” Nancy notes. 


“We’re going to be a dynamic, forward-looking, out-of-the-box-thinking institution. We want to be the best we can be.”

Watts shared that same message when he became dean of the School of Medicine in 2010, urging each department to identify areas where it could be the best in the country. The strategic planning process that followed identified seven “research pillars” in which UAB has the potential to be a world leader: cancer; cardiovascular biology and diseases; diabetes, obesity, and metabolism; immunology and autoimmunity; infectious diseases, global health, and vaccines; neuroscience; and transplantation. “By focusing on these areas, we will attract faculty, students, patients, research funding, and community support,” Watts says. 

In little more than a year, the School of Medicine had invested millions to launch a Comprehensive Transplant Institute and Comprehensive Cardiovascular Center, recruited internationally renowned researchers across many different departments, announced plans to open a new regional medical campus in Montgomery, and boosted scholarships to medical students, among many other accomplishments. 

The process has attracted significant external support, including $25 million in new philanthropy during the initial phase of the strategic plan. Attracting new funding sources is critical in an era when federal and state education and research budgets are becoming increasingly constrained, Watts says. 

He has emphasized to faculty that uncertainty is no excuse for inaction. “A lot of places aren’t investing,” says Frances Lund, Ph.D., chair of the UAB Department of Microbiology. “They’re hunkered down, waiting to see what the NIH and state and federal government are going to do. There aren’t a lot of places recruiting and making major investments, but Ray has said, ‘We’re not going to wait.’”

That message of resolve helped lure Lund and her research partner and husband, Troy Randall, Ph.D., both world-renowned immunologists, to UAB. “He’s really good at communicating his vision for this university,” Lund says. “I have a pretty high skepticism rate, but he convinces you that he truly believes in his mission to make this a leading university and that he is going to do what it takes to make that happen.”

sp2013 cover14Even though he is no longer in a lab every day, the prospect of breaking new scientific ground still energizes Watts. “Our new electronic health record at UAB gives us the ability to add in genetic information,” Watts says. “We’re going to be sequencing the genomes of our patients in the next few years, and that’s going to completely change the way we practice medicine. We don’t want to keep trying treatments while patients keep getting sicker. We want to go right to a targeted therapy, identified by the patient’s genotype, that’s going to cure them or change their future. That’s where we’re heading.” 

Watts approaches the ideas streaming into his office from faculty like a venture capitalist. Throughout his career, he has kept his eye out for research with the potential to become new treatments—and focused on speeding their transition from the lab to the clinic. When he was School of Medicine dean, Watts rewarded promising proposals with “acceleration funds” to jump-start studies and get the preliminary results needed to earn larger federal funding and other outside support. “Once we commit our own resources, then we can go out to talk with others,” Watts says. “People want to invest in great things, but they want to know that you have invested, too.”  

Watts says he intends to use the same model to drive continued expansion across UAB. “We’re going to be a dynamic, forward-looking, out-of-the-box-thinking institution,” he says. “We want to be the best we can be. We want to be exciting and innovative and creative in all parts of our mission. Some people are interested in UAB for our theatre programs, others for our cancer research. But whatever their interests, they want to know what our top priorities are, where we are going next, and how we are educating the best and the brightest.” 

One day, when Watts was in the seventh grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary in West End, his teacher got sick.“We all got there and the bell rang, and no one showed up,” Watts says. “I was a little bit of a pistol. So I say to everyone, ‘OK, it’s time for history. Let’s get our books out and go over our homework.’ We went through the day like that. We went on bathroom breaks and lunch break; we read our weekly readers. Then at the end of the day, I said, ‘We’re dismissed.’ The next day, when she found out, the principal was mad at me—but not too mad, because it worked!”

Watts’s natural leadership abilities and infectious enthusiasm appeal to esteemed scientists as well as seventh graders. “He can really light up a room,” says David G. Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., who, like Watts, specializes in Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders and trained at Washington University in St. Louis and at Mass General. “He has tremendous enthusiasm and optimism, but it’s also his ability to share his vision of what’s possible. He’s a visionary, and I don’t use that term lightly.”

As UAB president, Watts plans to initiate a campuswide series of discussions and planning that will result in a multiyear strategic roadmap for the entire university. Planning documents don’t always generate passion, but Watts has a way of building excitement around a common vision among faculty, staff, students, and the community.

“He is a great motivator,” says Alan Freeman, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at Emory who worked with Watts for 17 years. “In many ways, he’s like a football coach. You came out of a meeting with him pumped up and ready to go.”

The best motivation is to give people an opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves, Watts insists—whether they are students, faculty, or potential donors.

“Everyone gives themselves to and invests in things that they believe in, that are important and fundamentally valuable,” he says. “As president of the UA Health Services Foundation (HSF), I had the opportunity to work with most of the business and community leaders in Birmingham. They are ready and eager to help us. They’re chomping at the bit. People want to invest in our strengths, and in the future.”

They will get that opportunity when UAB launches the public phase of its largest-ever fund-raising campaign in fall 2013.

Charles Perry, who has served with Watts on the HSF board, agrees that local leaders are invested in UAB’s vision. “Ray is able to express that vision in a way that convinces others that this is what we need to do, and we can really do it.”

Leadership is not a one-person show, Watts emphasizes. “We have a dynamic leadership team that has proven it can translate bold ideas into bold action,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of challenges and problems in Birmingham, across Alabama, and across America to go around. But we are eager to take them on. And I know we will make a difference.”