Trudeau Medalist Looks Back on Paradigm-Shifting Discovery in Autoimmunity and Legacy of Providing Opportunities for Underrepresented Groups in Medicine

David S. Wilkes, MD, was recognized as the 2024 recipient of the Edward Livingston Trudeau Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the ATS, during the Respiratory Health Awards on Sunday.

David S. Wilkes, MD
David S. Wilkes, MD

The Trudeau Medal is given in recognition of major contributions to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of lung disease, critical illness, or sleep disorders through leadership in research, education, or clinical care, and acknowledges exemplary professionalism, collegiality, and citizenship in the ATS community.

“My contribution to science is two things. One is scientific, and one is in career development. For the science piece, my contribution to the community was identifying the role of autoimmunity and the pathogenesis of lung transplant rejection,” said Dr. Wilkes, a National Institutes of Health-funded researcher for more than 20 years, in an interview before the International Conference. “Initially, when we described it in the early 1990s at an ATS meeting, somebody said it was heretical that you could even think that could be a thing. So, there was a paradigm shift, and it is now widely understood and embraced by many.”

In addition to being a researcher, Dr. Wilkes is a mentor, sponsor, educator, administrator, executive, and entrepreneur. He served as the Dean and James Carroll Flippin Professor of Medical Science at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Currently, he is Dean Emeritus at the UVA School of Medicine.

Since 2013, Dr. Wilkes has served as the national director of the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the development of medical, dental, and nursing faculty from historically marginalized backgrounds.

“That is my legacy, having run the nation’s eminent program that trains clinician-scientists from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine, Dr. Wilkes said. “I view that as my most important accomplishment. Being successful in research is great, but it was the science that allowed me to get to the level of prominence so that I had enough gravitas to lead a program like the Amos.”

Dr. Wilkes, an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, has served on multiple National Institutes of Health study sections, as well as on the Board of Scientific Counselors at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Advisory Council for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has received numerous awards for his work in diversity and inclusion.

He has co-authored more than 140 research papers, holds six U.S. patents, and is the founder of ImmuneWorks, Inc., a biotech company developing novel treatments for immune-mediated lung disease. He is a scientific advisor and consultant to several biotech companies.

Despite all his accomplishments in the field, Dr. Wilkes didn’t set out to become a pulmonary critical care doctor. As a medical student, he first envisioned becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. Then, as he was exposed to the complexity of treating patients in a critical care setting, his interest in pulmonary and critical care solidified.

“When I was a medical student, I was always struck by the attending physician who stressed that if we understood the basic mechanisms of disease, then maybe we’d go from treating one patient at a time to treating thousands at a time. To be able to do that, we need to understand disease mechanisms through research,” Dr. Wilkes said. “Those comments led me to strongly consider a career as a researcher, and that’s what I did.”

He offers three-pronged career advice to his respiratory medicine colleagues:

  • Have a mentor.
  • Protect your time for academic pursuits.
  • Know when to say “yes” to opportunities to accelerate your career.

“That often means you’re saying ‘no’ to a lot of great requests,” Dr. Wilkes said. “But saying no oftentimes allows you to say yes to those things that are critical for your career development. Mentors are crucial in this process. They can help you with both of the other points — help you protect your time when you need to protect it and evaluate opportunities as they arise to determine whether they are things that are career-enhancing or distractions you should say no to.”

Before arriving at UVA, Dr. Wilkes was the executive associate dean for research affairs at the Indiana University School of Medicine and assistant vice president for research at Indiana University. He was also the director of the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Physician Scientist Initiative. He is a professor of medicine Emeritus at Indiana University and currently serves on the Board of Visitors of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and the Board of Trustees at Villanova University. He is a current member of the Board of Directors for Baxter International.

Dr. Wilkes obtained his undergraduate degree in biology from Villanova University before receiving his medical degree from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. He completed an internship and residency at Temple University Hospital, and a pulmonary and critical care fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.  A military veteran, Dr. Wilkes also received a Commendation Medal for Service from the United States Air Force.

“My involvement with the ATS has been a key asset for me as I developed my career. It’s your professional home, and that allows you to connect with people literally around the world,” said Dr. Wilkes, who has been a member of the Society since 1989 and has served on multiple committees as chair of the Allergy Immunology Inflammation Assembly, and as a member of the Board of Directors.

“What it allowed is networking and engaging with different scientists,” Dr. Wilkes continued. “A number of collaboration groups were born out of interactions with folks at ATS meetings.”

The Trudeau Medal, first given in 1926, is given in honor of Edward Livingston Trudeau, a founder and the first president of the American Lung Association.

Information on the Respiratory Health Awards, including how to make nominations, is available on the conference website.

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Don’t forget that ATS 2024 Highlights: On Demand are available to all conference registrants! On Demand will give you access to the Opening Ceremony, Plenary Session, Keynote Series, Clinical Year in Review, Adult Clinical Core Curriculum, and so much more. The topics will cover ILD, asthma, health equity, and CF, to name just a few. On Demand content will be accessible to all ATS 2024 full conference and On Demand registrants until March 2025.