Link: University of Iowa

Information About

Alumni Interview

James Hanson, M.D.

Portrait: Roger I. Ceilley, M.D.


What is your hometown?

Jefferson, Iowa

What is your official title?

Director, Center for Developmental Biology and Perinatal Medicine
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I don’t remember ever not being interested, but it certainly was in early elementary school that I began to recognize that I wanted to focus my career in these areas. By the time I was in high school I had become interested in genetics and medicine.

What interested you to pursue a career in medicine and medical education?

My father was born with severe bilateral club feet. Terrible treatment left him crippled for life. I grew up seeing his constant pain and difficulty in getting around, yet he rarely complained. His great strength, both physical and mental, along with his indomitable will, led to great success and professional achievement. He set a standard for me that I will never stop trying to meet. I swore a long time ago that no child should ever again have to struggle, suffer and endure as he did. In the words of the poet Robert W. Service, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.”

Please highlight your major career achievements, awards, discoveries, etc.

The efforts of which I am most proud relate to the development of programs to prevent and treat birth defects and provide care to children and families with genetic disorders, both nationally and here in Iowa. Examples include the Iowa state newborn screening program and state high risk pregnancy screening program. Others are the state birth defects registry, the statewide genetics consultation service, and the state’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination.

I received a Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation Fellowship in Public Policy in 1991, which I spent on the staff of Senator Tom Harkin working on disability education policy and related issues. I subsequently served on the staff of the Secretary of Health and Human Services and had several other assignments within the Department of Health and Human Services before joining the National Institutes of Health in 1997. Since moving there I helped organize national newborn screening research, a national cancer genetics research network, and several other national and international research programs related to genetics, birth defects and maternal/child health.

I helped found the American College of Medical Genetics and am a past President of the Teratology Society, an international society devoted to the prevention and treatment of birth defects.

Is there a teacher, mentor or University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine faculty member who has helped shape your education?

Dr. Hans Zellweger, Professor of Pediatrics, had an enormous impact on my education and career. However, I am deeply indebted to numerous other current and former members of the faculty and staff at the University of Iowa to whom I am profoundly grateful for my opportunities to serve children’s health, and without whom I could never have progressed.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa for your education and medical training?

The primary factors were the low cost and great value as measured by the quality of faculty and reputation. It also seemed that it would be possible to have close relationships with mentors.

What kind of professional opportunities or advantages has your University of Iowa training provided?

In retrospect, I believe one of the most valuable advantages was an environment that encouraged me to explore my own interests and supported early clinical research opportunities. It also exposed me to a large number of outstanding physicians and scientists from around the nation and world. I draw inspiration from this expanded “Iowa” network, and they provide me with valuable advice and consultation.

Please describe your professional interests.

My primary academic and professional interests are medical genetics, birth defects - including those caused by teratogenic agents - and public policy. I am especially interested in aspects related to maternal and child health.

What are some of your outside interests?

Besides my family, which includes four children and seven grandchildren, my outside interests include cooking - especially Mediterranean cuisines such as Spanish, Italian, Moroccan, and Lebanese, and Asian cuisines such as Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese. I also enjoy travel, woodworking, gardening and reading.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

Aim high and don’t be afraid to fail. Keep your eye on the goal; making a better world for children and families. Do what you believe is right.

If you could change one thing about the practice or business of medicine, what would it be?

I would make it less business and more medicine, less bureaucracy and more time with patients.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in medicine since you were a student?

The biggest changes relate to new basic insights from genetics and molecular biology, the use of computers and informatics, and the advent of new technologies, especially imaging, genomic technologies and nanotechnologies.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's medical students?

To thine ownself be true. Try to match your professional goals to the personal interests that you most enjoy and about which you feel most passionate. Never stop learning and never, ever give up your dreams.

What do you see as "the future" of the medicine?

I see a future in which an understanding of human genetic variation facilitates a more personalized approach to medicine including a rational public health infrastructure. I believe that information systems and greatly enhanced technologies that facilitate point of care applications will increase the involvement of patients in their own health care and create a stronger patient-physician partnership. In this improved relationship, the physician’s role will become more that of a wise counselor who can practice the art of medicine based upon evidence from systems biology and insight into the needs and values of those who seek care.


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