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Success requires persistence, resilience, and critical thinking, Nobel Prize winner tells audience

William G. Kaelin Jr., M.D., shares insights at UTSW’s annual Donald W. Seldin Research Symposium

Nobel Laureate William G. Kaelin Jr., M.D., delivers inspiring words at UT Southwestern’s Donald W. Seldin Research Symposium
Nobel Laureate William G. Kaelin Jr., M.D., delivers inspiring words at UT Southwestern’s Donald W. Seldin Research Symposium of how his success did not occur without early doubters and frequent challenges.

Nobel Laureate William G. Kaelin Jr., M.D., Professor of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, has accomplishments that easily justify his selection as keynote speaker at the UT Southwestern Department of Internal Medicine’s ninth annual Donald W. Seldin Research Symposium.

Still, as much as attendees of the April 19 event came away impressed by his discussion of research that led to his earning the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, they were equally inspired by his story of humility and perseverance.

“I was a late bloomer,” Dr. Kaelin explained to the packed crowd of 200-plus students, residents, and faculty members, elaborating that he eagerly accepted a student internship as an undergraduate at Duke University that he thought would be a springboard to his future, especially since the previous seven students who participated in the internship had been accepted to medical school.

But the assignment – working on a protein biochemistry project – ended up becoming a painful and humbling experience. Explaining, he displayed to the audience a slide of his report card showing he earned a disappointing grade of “C.” Then he read aloud the final assessment of his work by the supervising professor, describing him as “a bright young man whose future lies outside of the laboratory.”

audience members seated at rows of tables watch Seldin Symposium speaker
The audience listens intently to the words of Dr. Kaelin, later learning about the newest research from the Department of Internal Medicine.

The audience chuckled at the now-laughable conclusion, since Dr. Kaelin ultimately established himself as one of the most brilliant medical thinkers of his time. His research is directly related to FDA approval of a medication for kidney cancer and von Hippel-Lindau disease. In his presentation, Dr. Kaelin outlined how the work is also showing promise in treating heart disease.

Dr. Kaelin was awarded the Nobel Prize five years ago jointly with colleagues Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries of how cells can sense and adapt to changing oxygen availability. During the 1990s, they identified molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying levels of oxygen. The discoveries may lead to new treatments for anemia, cancer, and other diseases.

The Donald W. Seldin Research Symposium is an annual event showcasing research conducted by UTSW Internal Medicine residents and fellows. It brings together trainees, faculty, and staff to celebrate the collaborative, mentored research performed by trainees, something Dr. Kaelin said is vital to their growth and development in the field.

7 men and women in scrubs, white coats and suits in an atrium gather around boards displaying posters of current Internal Medicine research
Attendees check out poster projects submitted at the Symposium, which highlights the research work of Internal Medicine residents and fellows.

Had Dr. Kaelin chosen a nonscientific career, it is difficult to calculate the potential loss to patients benefiting today from his discoveries. That one professor’s questioning of his potential never deterred him. He always sought out relationships with mentors who helped him prepare to conduct sound research and to endure inevitable future challenges.

Paying it forward, Dr. Kaelin encouraged symposium attendees to do the same and seek mentors, relish teamwork, and give guidance to others who follow them into their fields.

“I really owe my career to them,” Dr. Kaelin said about his own inspirational mentors, naming the late David M. Livingston, M.D., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as one. He added, “A number of my scientific heroes are here at UT Southwestern.” Among them is collaborator Steven McKnight, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry. Dr. Kaelin told the audience that Dr. McKnight is “not only brilliant, but extremely courageous.”

Salahuddin Kazi, M.D., Professor, Vice Chair of Education, and Director of Residency Training in the Department of Internal Medicine, said Dr. Kaelin was an ideal choice for the keynote address because of his insights about humility, tenacity, and lifelong learning.

“His lecture was very well received because he made several important points to developing research scientists and physicians,” Dr. Kazi noted. “He was not initially felt to have potential but developed it later, emphasized the importance of mentorship, explained the many pitfalls of research and the importance of negative controls, and stressed the importance of persistence, resilience, and critical thinking.”

Kyle O’Malley, M.D., an Assistant Instructor of Internal Medicine who helped organize the Symposium, said the event highlighted outstanding science presented by graduate medical trainees and postdoctoral fellows in the Department of Internal Medicine. He added that it was a wonderful celebration of medicine and science and a fitting way to commemorate Dr. Seldin’s legacy at UT Southwestern.

Called the “intellectual father” of UT Southwestern, Dr. Seldin was among the most distinguished medical educators in the history of academic medicine. From 1952 to 1987, he served as UTSW’s first Chair of Internal Medicine. Dr. Seldin, who passed away in 2018, served the Medical Center for 67 years.

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