I always knew I was going to be an academic because I liked solving problems and was curious about the world around me. I became specifically interested in the sciences through biology experiments in junior high. I also knew I wanted to do something for the good of the community. These two interests, along with my pediatrician, Helen Gilles, MD, led me to consider a path to medicine. Dr. Gilles was the pediatrician for half of my hometown, raised a family, was chair of my church, and chair of the local school board. To me, pediatricians were very special people.
In the second year of my pediatric residency, I found my calling after a specific epiphany that occurred during a ward rotation: Cathy Wilfert, MD, a brilliant physician, was my attending and, at the end of the month, I thought to myself, “I want to learn to think like her.” So I signed up for a pediatric infectious diseases fellowship with Dr. Wilfert as my mentor.
What I learned was that some people are so bright, you can’t really think like them. I could only try to emulate how she thought. However, working with Dr. Wilfert launched my career in pediatric HIV research. For the first time anywhere in the world, our team gave a child zidovudine (then called “AZT”) in October 1986, and from then on, I worked to improve the treatment of children with HIV infection. It was remarkable to watch our progress. When we began, the life expectancy of an HIV-infected child was two to three years, with most of that time spent in misery. When I left Duke in 2016, we couldn’t measure the median life expectancy because people were living too long.
As I left Duke, my practice was shrinking because my patients were now moving to the adult clinic with normal looking immune systems. It was an amazing journey of over 30 years of HIV research, and I’m fortunate to say that my practice was shrinking for the best reasons any physician could hope for: my patients were being healed.
Medical research is truly one of the world’s most powerful tools to improve the quality of other peoples’ lives, and it’s accessible to anyone with curiosity and the will to do hard work for the good of their community.
Ross McKinney Jr., MD, is the chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, where he leads an array of programs that support all aspects of medical research and training. Dr. McKinney received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1975. He earned his medical degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and completed his internship and residency in pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center. To learn more about Dr. McKinney, click here.