Link: University of Iowa

Information About

Alumni Interview

Billy Hudson, Ph.D.

Portrait: Bill Hudson, Ph.D.


Bill Hudson, Ph.D. is an internationally known scientist whose discoveries are key to the understanding of the pathogenesis of hereditary Alport syndrome and of the autoimmune renal disease Goodpasture syndrome. He's an entrepreneur who co-founded two biotech companies to bring a potential treatment for diabetic kidney disease he developed to market, is an NIH Merit Award recipient and has received the Homer Smith Award from the American Society of Nephrology. Dr. Hudson is the Elliot V. Newman Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry, and Pathology and Director of the Center for Matrix Biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

What is your hometown?

Grapevine, Arkansas, located about 60 miles south of Little Rock.

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

I became interested in math and science in my first semester of study at Henderson State Teachers College at Arkadelphia, Arkansas. It is now named Henderson State University.

What interested you to pursue a career in science?

A college professor, Dr. Haskell Jones, introduced me to science in my freshman class. He thought I had potential to become a chemist, and he talked with me weekly providing encouragement. When he discovered that I had not yet had high school math or science, he encouraged me to study high school books at the same time that I took the college courses. He became an important mentor who encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry.

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

My team discovered two novel proteins, named α3 and α4 chains of collagen IV, and described how they, together with an α5 chain, assemble and comprise a complex network of basement membranes that function as part of the kidney filtration barrier and is defective in disease. This α3α4α5 network is directly involved in autoimmune Goodpasture syndrome, hereditary Alport syndrome, and diabetic renal disease, which causes kidney failure in millions of patients.

For these discoveries, I received the 2003 Homer W. Smith award, the highest honor from the American Society of Nephrology, for a lifetime of scientific contributions on the molecular nature of basement membranes and the molecular basis of several kidney diseases. I also received a NIH Merit Award for studies of basement membranes in 2002.

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

There are three professors that played a key role in my career. Dr. Robert Barker, Professor of Biochemistry, mentored me on a daily and weekly basis on my dissertation research, teaching me the power of crafting a simple and direct question as the basis for scientific discovery. He provided me the necessary encouragement to succeed in challenging courses in physical organic chemistry and research issues in carbohydrate chemistry. Dr. Rex Montgomery, Professor of Biochemistry, mentored me in “glycoprotein chemistry” and instilled in me the enjoyment of scientific research. Dr. Charles Swenson (59PhD), Professor of Biochemistry, provided friendship and encouragement to achieve in physical biochemistry.

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

Dr. Robert Barker, my Ph.D. mentor, was recruited to the University of Iowa in 1964 from the University of Tennessee, where I was a graduate student in his laboratory pursuing a Masters degree in Biochemistry. He encouraged me to transfer to Iowa to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry.

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

A pivotal component of my career as a medical scientist is my graduate education at Iowa. The graduate program provided the essential foundation for furthering my education at the postgraduate level to become a research scientist. Iowa was a great university and the medical center provided an exciting research environment. The greatness of the university continues to grow, bringing further meaning to my Ph.D. degree.

As a graduate of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, what does being the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award mean to you?

I am grateful and truly honored to receive this award from such a prestigious university. The award brings to mind several thoughts: it reflects the mentorship, inspiration and encouragement of many faculty in the Departments of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Iowa for whom I am indebted, that fueled, shaped and equipped me for a journey into the exciting world of medical science which led to medical discoveries by my talented research team; and it reflects the love and encouragement of my family, to whom I am also indebted.

How did you become interested in kidney function, and what led you to study the role of the basement membrane in the kidney?

During my graduate studies at Iowa, I was trained in carbohydrate chemistry by Dr. Robert Barker and in glycoprotein chemistry by Dr. Rex Montgomery. At a research conference in Boston, while I was serving on active duty in the U.S. Army, I attended a lecture by Dr. Robert Spiro who spoke about how diabetes damages the basement membrane causing kidney failure of millions of patients. This world-wide health problem immediately captivated my interest, in part because of my training in carbohydrate metabolism. Under the mentorship of Dr. Spiro at Harvard Medical School, I embarked on a career to explore how the kidney filters blood and how filtration becomes defective in diabetes.

As someone who grew up in rural Arkansas, much of the time without electricity or running water, and is now an internationally known scientist and entrepreneur, what would you say is your greatest success?

Overcoming poverty, extreme family dysfunction, and poor secondary education in writing, math and science. This required several mentors who were interested in my professional development and who knew the power of education.

What maintains your interest in medical education?

After nearly 40 years as a professor, I remain driven by the excitement of scientific discovery and the understanding of how discovery can heal suffering and advance mankind. I want to introduce students to this way of life.

You recently launched a program for middle and high school students which equipped their school buses with computers and broadband internet access, taking learning out of the classroom and enabling them to continue their education on their long commute to and from school. What inspired you to create this “Aspirnaut Initiative”?

There are several reasons for creation of the Aspirnaut Initiative.

First, for many years I have been aware that my academic success, beginning with a rocky start from a rural community in Arkansas, is due in large part to five key mentors who provided me with opportunities and guidance to acquire an education that underpins my scientific career.

Second, in this time of national challenge to elevate math and science achievement in secondary schools, I feel that scientists and mathematicians in universities and other professionals have a responsibility to volunteer part of their time to participate in K-12 education. We are the ones who truly understand the professions - the educational path, the rewards and the excitement of discovery. In doing so, we can help recruit and develop the minds of American-born students into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce to maintain America’s competitive edge in science and technology.

And finally, the plight of high-ability youth in grades K-12 has been brought to my attention by my sister Ann Kincl. She has more than thirty years of experience in gifted education as a teacher and administrator. Through the years she has expressed great concern about how the high ability students are held back in school. In particular, she brought to my attention the work of Dr. Nicholas Colangelo at the University of Iowa. His research gave us confidence to take an action step to rescue high-ability youth.

To this end the Hudson Family, Dr. Julie Hudson, my wife, Ann Kincl, my sister, and Johnny Hudson, my brother, launched a pilot project in April of 2007, called the Aspirnaut Initiative. The goal of this project is to elevate math and science achievement of rural students in the community where we grew up, and with success, replicate it in other rural communities.

The key features of the Aspirnaut Initiative are transforming idle time on long school bus rides into productive learning time by using laptop computers, and internet access while in motion, and a personalized education with online courses; moreover, the online courses from Aventa Learning, which was suggested by Dr. Clara M. Baldus at the Iowa Online AP Academy. And finally a one-room school in the community with one teacher for students in grade 2 through 12 for management of time on the bus. So, the Aspirnaut Initiative has several roots at the University of Iowa.

What are some of your outside interests?

Farming, traveling and hiking.

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

Integrity, rigorous experimentation, spending more time crafting key questions and less time on experimentation, focusing on important problems, and advancing students and colleagues.

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

Big science, requiring multiple collaborations to answer questions that are judged to be meritorious by granting agencies. And, major advancements in technology that provide the tools to answer important questions.

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

Aspire to achieve high goals, seek knowledge and work with enthusiasm.


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