GW SMHS Celebrates New Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society Members
Seventy-four percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, 61 percent cannot name an institute where biomedical research is conducted, and just 9 percent of Americans have heard of the National Institutes of Health. Those facts, reported by Research America!, represent a failure by the scientific community to engage the public, according to Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., the 2015 AΩA Alpha Chapter Visiting Professor, at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ (SMHS) 60th Annual Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society (AΩA) Awards and Induction Banquet, May 14.
Hotez, who returned to SMHS for the first time since leaving to become the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and head of the Section of Pediatric Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, focused his remarks to the new AΩA members on the importance of public engagement. “Maybe it is our fault, because we’ve been so focused on writing papers and earning grants, that we haven’t effectively engaged the public.”
The 2015 Class of AΩA inductees included 29 members of the SMHS M.D. program, as well as three residents, two full-time SMHS faculty members, a voluntary clinical faculty member, and an SMHS alumnus. The event was organized by Angelike Liappis, M.D. ’96, RESD ’99, F.I.D.S.A., associate professor of medicine at SMHS, and secretary of the GW Alpha Chapter of AΩA.
“Congratulations to our new inductees; our students, our residents, our faculty members, and our alumni inductees,” said Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, RESD ’85, vice president for health affairs at GW, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, and Dean of SMHS. “You are the best of who we have. Let me congratulate you and wish you all the best.”
“Election to Alpha Omega Alpha is a distinction that accompanies a physician throughout his or her career,” said Alan Wasserman, M.D., M.A.C.P., Eugene Meyer Professor of Medicine, chair of the Department of Medicine at SMHS, president and chair of the board of the GW Medical Faculty Associates, and councilor of the GW Alpha Chapter of AΩA, who formally conferred membership on this year’s class of physicians. “The society will provide an avenue for the exchange of ideas and contacts, but most importantly, you will always be recognized as a member of AΩA. It is a distinct honor, the highest honor the medical profession has to give you.”
Only the top 25 percent of graduating medical students are eligible for nomination to the society, and among those, inductees are selected by their peers and faculty members based on their demonstration of leadership, character, community service, and professionalism. Residents, faculty, and alumni members are elected by the chapter after demonstrating scholarly achievement, professional contributions, and values during their career in medicine.
“How many of you have a Twitter account?” Hotez asked the audience. When few raised their hands, he added, “This is not good. You need to be on Twitter. You need to be on Facebook.”
Hotez described a new metric for identifying a researcher’s relevance: the Science Kardashian Index, named for the ubiquitous pseudo-celebrity family. Dividing the number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers by the number of citations on Google Scholar, he explained, yields the Science Kardashian score. The light-hearted index, Hotez said, can have serious scientific value for society. He recalled a fortunate event from his years at GW. It was shortly after the United Nationals drafted its Millennium Development Goals, laying out eight objectives for improving conditions in the third world. Included among the goals was combating HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other disease.
“The HIV/AIDS and Malaria component led to PEPFAR [the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] that’s an $8 billion investment,” explained Hotez. “It also led to a whole generation of global health celebrities: Bono, Angelina Jolie — and she’s involved you get Brad [Pitt] — and Bill Gates. All of this happened because of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.”
The trouble, said Hotez, was the third component to the goal, “other diseases.” For a researcher working on tropical medicine, that was a disaster. “You don’t get Brad Pitt standing up shouting ‘Stop other diseases!’”
Not long afterwards, Washington, D.C. was in the midst of the anthrax scare, when poison-laced letters were mailed to members of Congress. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had circled the wagons, according to Hotez, and stopped responding to media inquiries.
“Who do you call when the CDC goes into shutdown mode because of the anthrax scare?” he asked. “You call the guy [at SMHS] with the microbiology department that is next to the White House.”
Hotez, an internationally recognized expert on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), the newly branded name for “other diseases,” admittedly knew next to nothing about anthrax. Based on the university’s proximity to the federal government, however, his phone began ringing nonetheless. Hotez stationed a pair of infectious disease and vaccine textbooks by his office phone, and when reporters from prominent news outlets such as Reuters, The New York Times, and others called, he would gladly answer their questions, with a little help from his textbooks. “I also made a pact with them,” he recalled, asking the journalists to check back in with him once the anthrax story ran its course so he could tell them about NTDs.
According to Hotez, everyone he spoke with honored his request, and by cultivating relationships with the reporters, he was able to inject NTDs into the public consciousness and ultimately received funding from Congress that would provide treatment for roughly a billion people worldwide.
“That all happened,” said Hotez, “because I was willing to take a risk, step away from the grants-and-papers, grants-and-papers, grants-and-papers cycle, and engage the public. It’s a good lesson on what you can do if you are willing to talk to journalists.”
Following the keynote address, SMHS alumnus Jeremy M. Blumberg, M.D. ’05, chief of urology and surgical director of renal transplantation, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stepped forward to be inducted into AΩA.
“We thought it was particularly important this year to have Dr. Blumberg because of the great push and initiation of our new kidney transplant program at GW,” said Wasserman. “It was a great fit, when we were thinking about whom we should honor as this year’s alumni inductee, someone who built the kidney program at UCLA.”
Blumberg took the opportunity to encourage the 2015 Class of inductees to share their passion.
“Your patients, many of them, are not going to remember you,” he said. “That’s ok. It’s the students and the residents and the fellows whom you are soon going to teach; those are the people who are going to remember you forever.”
Blumberg recalled many of his own faculty role models and mentors including Harold Frazier, M.D., professor of urology, and chief residents Alberto Inglasies, M.D., and Todd Constant, M.D., as well as current Assistant Professor of Urology at SMHS Compton Benjamin, M.D., Ph.D., RESD ’09, who at the time was an intern when Blumberg was on rotation.
“I’ve never forgotten them,” he said. “I think about these people all of the time. For the new inductees, you are obviously very smart, and you have a gift. You have to learn how to give this gift away to the people you are going to start teaching just weeks from now.”
Faculty members Joao Ascensao, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at SMHS, and chief, Section of Hematology, Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Jillian Catalanotti, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine and of health policy, and director, Internal Medicine Residency Program at SMHS, also were among this year’s inductees, as was Richard Kaufman, M.D. ’58, RESD ’62, B.A. ’55, Emeritus Clinical Professor of Medicine, who was first inducted into the Alpha Chapter of the AΩA as a student in 1958, received the 2015 Voluntary Clinical Faculty Award.
Alpha Omega Alpha Class of 2015
Geetha Bhagavatula (elected 2014)
David Grabski (elected 2014)
2015 House Staff Inductees
Daniela Botolin, M.D., surgery resident
Jessica Davis, M.D., internal medicine resident
Alan Siu, M.D., neurologic surgery resident