Alumni Profile: James Atkinson, M.D., Ph.D.
Dr. James Atkinson, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology
Vice Chair for Undergraduate Medical Education, Department of Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Vanderbilt MSTP Class of 1981
After growing up in Alabama, Dr. Atkinson attended Vanderbilt University, where he received a B.A. in Biology. He then entered the Vanderbilt M.D.- Ph.D. program with a Vivian B. Allen Medical Scientist Scholarship. He worked in the laboratory of Virgil LeQuire, M.D. and Larry Swift, Ph.D., where he studied the sarcoplasmic reticulum in the muscle disorder myotonia congenita using a unique animal model in goats (known as “fainting” or “nervous” goats). He completed a residency program in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology at Vanderbilt, where he served as Chief Resident. He then joined the faculty in the Department of Pathology, serving as Director of the Autopsy Service at Vanderbilt and the VA and Director of Surgical Pathology, successfully attaining the rank of Professor. His clinical work entails surgical pathology (with expertise in cardiovascular and muscle pathology) and diagnostic electron microscopy. During residency training, Dr. Atkinson became interested in cardiovascular pathology and worked with Renu Virmani, M.D. The focus of his early research as a member of the faculty was atherosclerosis; he was one of the co-investigators of the multicenter NIH “Pathobiologic Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth” (PDAY) study, which showed how atherosclerosis begins and progresses. He established a model for atherosclerosis in cholesterol-fed heterozygous Watanabe heritable hyperlipidemic rabbits and used that model to study the role of calcium in atherogenesis. He also investigated calcium in the generation of graft vasculopathy in cardiac transplantation. His other research has focused on a variety of cardiac diseases, including valvular heart disease, vascular grafts, ischemic heart disease, and cardiomyopathies.
Reflecting on your journey thus far as an M.D.-Ph.D., what has been the most impactful training experience in preparing you to establish your career?
The time that I spent working with Dr. Virmani set the stage for how I have spent most of my career. The MSTP provided the tools and enthusiasm required to conduct research, and Dr. Virmani showed that an academic pathologist can engage in both patient care as well as research, and that balance was appealing.
Looking back on your training, what is one thing you would do differently? What is the most important piece of advice you would give to current MSTP trainees?
Quite honestly, I cannot think of a single thing that I would have done differently during my training. I was so fortunate to have been given the chance to be in the Vanderbilt MSTP. If I could give any advice, it would be to not take for granted the opportunities that have been provided, and don’t forget the dedication that your mentors have in ensuring your success.
How did you decide to become a pathologist?
My interest in medicine started in early high school. As part of an Eagle Scout project, I shadowed a physician who was a pathologist; he took me to an annual pathology dinner meeting. I probably enjoyed riding in his MG more than looking at pathology images while eating a rare steak, but something must have clicked. Even though my MSTP laboratory was in the Department of Pathology, I tried to keep an open mind during my clerkship year, during which time my interest for internal medicine and pathology were about equal. I think the deciding factor came when one of my patients, a young lady with leukemia, passed away, and I was not sure I could handle the emotional ramifications of events such as that over an entire career. I chose pathology and have never regretted that decision.
Describe your current research.
Over the years, my focus has shifted from research to teaching. My current role now is to provide expertise in cardiovascular pathology. I do that both as a collaborator as well as informally by reviewing slides.
What is the best part of your current position as a physician-scientist, as well as your role as an undergraduate medical educator? What is the most challenging aspect? What was the biggest surprise?
Having the freedom and ability to shift focus over time is wonderful, and the combined degree gave me the ability to go down any number of career avenues. The challenge sometimes is becoming unfocused and trying to accomplish too much all at once. Although teaching is in my pedigree, as both of my parents and my wife were teachers, I have found that teaching is the best way to learn and become proficient. With the unbelievable cadre of medical and graduate students who attend Vanderbilt, a teacher here cannot become complacent or lazy. My current challenge as an undergraduate medical educator is impressing upon students how important understanding pathology is towards the care of patients. While I am an enthusiastic supporter of Curriculum 2.0 (and was one of the co-designers of the FMK Phase science blocks), with all of the many exciting aspects of their education, I don’t want our students to overlook that understanding pathology is the key to learning medicine.
What do you do when you aren't doing medicine and science? What are your hobbies?
I began running as a 2nd year medical student, and I still enjoy it. When I completed my 25th marathon in New York several years ago, I “retired” from that distance, but I still run in the half marathon in Nashville; this past spring I was one of 30 or so runners who have run that event each and every year (and I have two more to do until we reach the 20th anniversary!). I also enjoy history and have been involved in preserving various historic sites in Nashville and Franklin. And, believe it or not, I am a big fan of EDM, although I am probably too old to actually go to concerts; having said that, I did “drag” my wife to Above and Beyond a couple of years ago, and I just bought tickets to see Krewella - we’ll see about that.
What is your favorite part of Nashville?
I stepped on the Vanderbilt campus as a freshman in 1969 and basically never left. So, I would have to say this is a favorite area - especially Centennial Park, where I have put in hundreds and hundreds of running miles and know every crack of the sidewalk. In terms of the city in general, it has been amazing to see how far Nashville has come since I first arrived, with incredible opportunities in the city and community - if we only had time to take advantage of them all!