Paying It Forward: A Legacy of Mentorship

JRGavin photo

From segregated Alabama to a celebrated career, James R. Gavin, III, MD, PhD, the Endocrine Society’s 2021 Outstanding Mentor Laureate Award recipient, talks to Endocrine News about the importance mentoring and how it can make a difference for generations of others.

 

In a career journey that began in segregated Alabama, James R. Gavin, III, MD, PhD, says he credits the many people “who were willing to invest in me during times when the broader community offered indifference or discouragement.” Gavin thus made the commitment to “reach back” and do the same for others, and as recipient of the 2021 Laureate Outstanding Mentor Award, is recognized for impacting the lives of hundreds of minority physician-scientists.

Gavin is a clinical professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., and chief medical officer of Healing Our Village, a corporation that specializes in targeted education, disease management, and outreach for healthcare professionals and minority communities.

“One of the most satisfying issues that I now encounter is to engage the mentees of my mentees. It is a delight to witness the emergence of the next generation of scholars, and to see that those I have had the chance to mentor are, like me, following suit and repeating the behavior of mentorship.”

He has served as a direct mentor to more than 50 early-stage physician-scientists, and through his leadership of both the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-National Institutes of Health Medical Research Scholars Program and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program, continues his promise to return the investment others made on him years ago.

Endocrine News asked Gavin more about why sharing his time and wisdom is such a major part of his career mission.

Endocrine News: What does the recognition as an Outstanding Mentor mean to you?

Gavin: Upon hearing the news, I was at once humbled and exhilarated. It was an affirmation that someone felt that I had a sufficiently meaningful impact on their life and career development that they wanted the broader community to both know about and celebrate it. I was humbled that there were persons who felt strongly enough about this that they engaged the process of putting forth a formal nomination in a competition like this. My exhilaration stemmed from the fact that to be acknowledged as a mentor is truly a real honor. It means that you have been recognized for more than the offer of advice and guidance, as more than a counselor or even a coach.

All of these are important and meaningful roles. But these roles are by their very nature and timing transient or temporary. Not so for the mentor. The mentor’s engagement and caring are more long-term, more resilient. In fact, it has been said that the mentor does not truly rest until the mentee is successful! For me, to know that persons in whose lives and careers I have had the opportunity to interact in substantive ways have accorded such sentiments to me, leads me to be thrilled and excited.

ENWhat motivates you to mentor young physician-scientists and how impactful were mentors to you early in your career?  

Gavin: My academic and career journey that led from the segregated South in Mobile, Ala., to being the first African-American terminal degree recipient in basic health sciences at Emory University in 1970, to having a paper from work done at the NIH designated a “citation classic” before age 30, to becoming the first African-American president of the American Diabetes Association, and having a portrait in the National Academy of Medicine, to name a few among many wonderful honors and tributes, all derive from the fruits of mentorship.

I was blessed to have many wonderful and committed people care for me and who were willing to invest in me during times when the broader community offered indifference or discouragement. Indeed, some of us are blessed to have more than one mentor in the course of our career development.

In many ways, I have looked upon the investment made in me as the incurrence of a debt that demands I do no less for someone else when given the opportunity. I have been afforded the opportunity to partially repay the debt I owe to mentors like Rev. Edgar N. French, Sr., of Livingstone College, Dr. Leo E. Reichert, Jr., of Emory University, who continues to be a close and valued colleague to this day, as well as to Drs. Jesse Roth and Phillip Gorden of the NIH (it seems fitting that Dr. Gorden is a richly deserving Laureate award winner this year as well).

EN: In a time when the number of medical school applications for minorities, especially Black men and women, has been stagnant for several decades, what do you see as the major goal for increasing the diversity and train more physicians of color?

“I was blessed to have many wonderful and committed people care for me and who were willing to invest in me during times when the broader community offered indifference or discouragement. Indeed, some of us are blessed to have more than one mentor in the course of our career development.”

Gavin: The major goal in my view is to break through the stagnation and inertia we have seen in the numbers of medical school applicants and in the numbers of minority students pursuing careers in science and medical research. The challenge is to interrupt the early barriers that continue to discourage and divert promising minority students, especially males, away from a focus on STEM curricula, and which fail to engage curiosity about the kinds of questions that lead to the pursuit of investigation and discovery.

One of the most satisfying issues that I now encounter is to engage the mentees of my mentees. It is a delight to witness the emergence of the next generation of scholars, and to see that those I have had the chance to mentor are, like me, following suit and repeating the behavior of mentorship. This is the type of commitment and energy that we constantly encourage to have a community outreach and “reach-back” dimension. It is so important that our young, emerging leaders extend assistance to promote oncoming young scholars who need inspiration, guidance, and support.

Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer/editor based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

 

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