2020 Southern Society for Clinical Investigation Founders’ Medal Award

      Unlabelled image
      The 2020 SSCI Founders’ Medal Award was presented at the Southern Regional Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana to James C. Oates, MD (right) from the Medical University of South Carolina by Dr. Gary Gilkeson (left).
      The 2020 SSCI Founders’ Medal was presented to Dr. James C. Oates, by his long-time mentor and colleague of 25 years, Dr. Gary Gilkeson. The acceptance address follows. The 2020 Founders’ Medal presentation and acceptance can be watched at the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation website (

      Acceptance Address

      I want to thank the Council for selecting me for this honor. I must admit, given those who have stood here before me, I understand the meaning of “imposter syndrome.” This award is about service. Service to the society, to science, and to your own institution. I have always felt that service to this society is through constant service to its mission. An essential part of that mission is to mentor future generations in academic medicine. Therefore, I am going to turn the lens on those who have been my mentors and role models. The purpose for this is to give our colleagues who are early in their careers a guide to qualities that lead to successful mentorship.
      I will start with my parents, as that is where it always starts.
      I was saddened greatly by the passing of my father this year, but I was honored at his memorial to hear from those whom he had touched over the years. There was a theme that emerged in their comments. His real strength was the ability to make connections. These were not only connections between ideas and concepts but also connections between people and career paths. There were also the personal connections that he formed that made people feel special. Underpinning all of his interactions with faculty, patients, staff, and those in need was the deeply held belief that every human being should be treated with dignity and respect. In that sense, both mom and dad modeled the golden rule. These are a few qualities he demonstrated as a father that I feel are important in a successful mentor and collaborator. (1) He had a dedication to boy scout-like preparation and the tenacity to see a plan to its logical end. On a personal level, this was evident in his preparations for family vacations. He held these as sacred because it was the one time that he truly had a captive audience, particularly on a boat. (2) He had an uncanny ability to move on to plan B when plan A was not meeting its objective. This was true on sailing vacations when a storm engulfed our craft on the Chesapeake Bay or on beach vacations the rain would roll in. We assembled a lot of puzzles and played many a game of hearts. (3) He had a joy for asking and answering questions about the world around us. When I was younger, projects that we did around the house or the boat would often turn into teachable moments about physics. (4) Most importantly, he had a commitment to relationships, particularly mentoring relationships.
      Mom taught me how to be creative and tenacious and pursuit of goals yet to still retain a sense of humility and humor. She also taught me that the smartest person in the room does not have to be the loudest and that, often, sitting back and listening before reaching a conclusion is the best way to approach a problem. If we are listening, then we learn from everyone we meet.
      My favorite math teacher in high school, Mrs. Debbie Davies, understood that I was not a traditional student of math, meaning that I did not always get from a problem to a solution in the same fashion as the publishers of the textbook. She not only gave me space but encouraged me to be creative in my thinking, as long as I arrived at a meaningful (i.e., correct) solution. This is true in academic careers. Each of us follows a unique path. What matters in the end is our impact on the community.
      My mentor for the past 25 years has been Gary Gilkeson. He was hired from Duke to start a lupus program at MUSC. I was working in his lab at the time and decided that wherever Gary went, I would go too. On faculty now are 4 physician scientists and 6 basic scientists, some of whom are pictured here. At least 2 of his former trainees are now Department Chairs. What initially attracted me to Gary was his intelligence, creativity, and affable personality. However, he, too, excels in making connections. He will often take an idea or a concept from another discipline and apply it to discerning mechanisms and devising treatments for systemic lupus erythematosus. The first project he had me work on was the results of a connection between him and Brice Weinberg in a neighboring lab at the Durham VA. Brice was interested in the role of inducible nitric oxide synthase and inflammation in leukemia. Gary saw the potential for this enzyme as an accelerator of the innate immune response in lupus. Another quality of his that I admire is his generosity. He essentially handed me that project and moved on to new connections and ideas. He has done this consistently each of his mentees.
      These days, we wear lanyards around our necks to carry badges showing our qualifications and giving us entry into protected spaces. He used to wear one that had the letters “BAD” on it, which I later learned stood for “be a disciple” rather than be naughty. In the more modern sense, a disciple is one who follows the teachings of Jesus. If you go back to the Latin origins, it can also mean student or learner. Gary has modeled each meaning in his constant search for knowledge but in his service. He has made several trips to Sierra Leone to perform mission work as well as to learn about the connections between those who live there now and their distant relatives whose ancestors lived on the coastal islands from North Carolina to Florida. At home, he and his wife, MaryAnn, mentor young adults from their church and younger individuals from the community from less fortunate backgrounds.
      I would be remiss if I did not mention those in this society who have had a great influence on me. It was Bob Means, a former president of SSCI and recipient of this medal, who introduced me to this meeting. His lab was down the hall from mine, and halfway between them, he approached me with this, "How would you like to run for Secretary/Treasurer of the Southern Section of the AFMR?” This started 20 years of service to this meeting. Monica Farley has been a leadership role model and frequent collaborator on councils. Gailen Marshall has shared his wisdom as we have managed the Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology specialty section together. There are many others who have taken me aside and provided helpful guidance, such as Bo Sanders. So, to those who are still emerging as leaders, this society provides more than just a meeting, it is a concentration of leadership mentors who are generous with their advice.
      Joan Kemp has been the steady hand on the tiller of this society long before my arrival. To me, she has modeled grace under pressure, quiet intelligence, and an organizational mastery that I have yet to match.
      Just as we learn from those we mentor; we all learn valuable life lessons from the next generation in the family. My daughter, Aubrey, has taught me bravery and strength in adversity as she has battled leukemia. My son Evan has modeled persistence when things do not go as planned and a thoughtful manner of viewing the world around him.
      We learn from our furry children as well. My dog Sherlock has taught me that if you look at someone intently and tilt your head slightly to the side, they will give you what you want. I have yet to perfect this move but have not given up. It might be useful in negotiations.
      And finally, my wife Jennifer, my anchor. She is a lifelong learner and often takes herself out of her comfort zone in order to master a new topic. It always pays to marry someone who smarter than you. I noticed this in college when she took as her senior thesis a project to fuse a toxin to a monoclonal antibody as a targeted cancer treatment. I will note that she had published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine while I was still treading water in medical school. She may not know this, but according to Scopus, it has been cited 237 times. This lifelong approach to learning now applies to staying ahead of the challenges posed by medical issues that have arisen in our family. Most important, however, she is a beautiful, thoughtful, and giving human being, and I am lucky to have her in my life.
      So, for those of you on your way up in the world, surround yourself with bright, creative, and successful people. However, it may serve you well to choose folks who model the qualities I have highlighted here today.
      I want to again thank the Council for this honor and to thank you for your attention.