Link: University of Iowa

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Alumni Interview

Portrait: Richard McGee, Ph.D.

Richard McGee, Ph.D.


What is your hometown?

Roseville, Minnesota

How/when did you become interested in science?

I’ve always had an interest in science that was encouraged throughout my education. When I was in the fifth grade, I went to a summer science camp to learn about predicting the weather. Then, in junior high and high school, I had two wonderful teachers who really introduced me to asking and answering questions, and doing research. As an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, I was incredibly fortunate to encounter a mentor who gave me a challenging research project in biochemistry that prepared for Ph.D. level research.

What interested you to pursue a career in research?

I loved the problem solving and finding truly new information – discovery, freedom to pursue crazy ideas and having few boundaries. I later developed a keen interest in learning and in the development of young people.

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

I have received several awards that have meant a great deal to me, including the Clarence P. Berg Award from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Iowa in 1976, which recognizes the top graduate student during each two year period. A Pharmacology Research Associate Training Award supported my postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and a five year Research Career Development Award from NIH gave me great latitude to develop novel research approaches. Probably the awards that have meant the most to me are those from students like the Crystal Award from the Minority Affairs Committee of the Student National Medical Association at Georgetown University, the Copper Cupula Award from the graduate students of the Department of Pharmacology at Georgetown University, and the "Mentor of the Year" Award from the Delaware State University Minority Access to Research Careers Program. I also received the Mayo Graduate School Dean's Recognition Award. I considered it as an honor to be selected by my peers to serve as the Chair of the national organization of leaders of biomedical research training at U.S. medical schools – the Group on Graduate Research Education and Training.

In my research, I have been able to make discoveries that include the first direct demonstration of stimulation-dependent neurotransmitter release from model neuronal cells in tissue culture, and the first studies of relationship between membrane lipids and the functions of voltage-dependent K channel. Probably the most interesting and novel, however, has been my gradual evolution to social science research and actually studying the development of young scientists. For example, we discovered a very small number of highly consistent and reliable characteristics could predict college students who would choose research careers. Another study revealed that graduate students being co-mentored by two faculty, compared to students with the more typical single mentor, could develop more rapidly as an independent scientist and better acquire the skills needed for interdisciplinary research. These studies led to our current national, qualitative research study of career decisions among young scientists using methods and study sizes never attempted before. The studies focus especially on underrepresented minorities and women in science, and on the pursuit of academic careers and are funded by multiple grants from NIH. I have been fortunate to be able to play a bridging role between biomedical and social science theories and approaches. It was a great full-circle experience when I returned to Iowa in the fall of 2008 to do the first two student interviews of our current research.

In my career I have also been fortunate to be able to contribute to the development of new academic models to assist the academic development of students seeking medical and research training from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds and racial/ethnic minorities. At Georgetown, we developed a new post baccalaureate model that continues today to enable many students from these groups to enter and succeed as physicians. I have demonstrated an effective post baccalaureate research training model to promote research careers for minority students which has grown into a National Institute General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) funded program in place at 23 universities around the United States. At Mayo Clinic, we created several collaborations with minority-serving institutions with positive impacts on their students and their own institutional capacities. Currently, we are experimenting with another new model to systematize some of the challenging transitions faced by all students evolving from undergraduate to graduate education. Overall, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to assist many students in their efforts to achieve their goals of becoming successful clinicians and scientists, and younger students trying to figure out their paths in life.

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

I could go on and on about Art Spector, M.D., who was my mentor at Iowa. Dr. Spector epitomizes the finest qualities of a true mentor and colleague. He guided my development by encouraging me to take on difficult problems that didn’t seem to necessarily have easy answers, at the same time always being available for help as needed. Dr. Roger Chalkley, who led the Ph.D. program at the time, was instrumental in my decision to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa. And Dr. Carl Vestling, who was the Chair of the Biochemistry department when I was at Iowa, set a tenor in the department that it a great place for students, faculty and everyone else.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa for your doctoral education?

I chose Iowa because of the openness and creative energy I sensed when Roger Chalkley gave a seminar recruiting students to biochemistry at Iowa while I was at the University of Minnesota. Also, I chose Iowa because of the design of the Ph.D. program, and the way I was treated while investigating it.

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

The real impact was in the outstanding preparation I received as a scientist and the design of the Ph.D. program which helped me develop as an independent scientist. I was encouragement to explore novel ideas, received mentoring on all of the critical skills required of a scientist, and received guidance on seeking the right avenues after my degree to launch a successful career. All of it enabled me to obtain an outstanding postdoctoral research opportunity at the National Institutes of Health, which was pivotal in my career advancement.

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

It means a great deal. I thoroughly enjoyed my four years at Iowa and could not have asked for anything better or more. My education completely confirmed my rationale for going to Iowa. I have valued keeping in touch with my mentor, Art Spector, and a number of other Iowa colleagues.

Being someone who has taken ‘the (professional) road less traveled’ in many respects, it reinforces my beliefs that the University of Iowa sees, encourages and values individual contributions.

Please describe your professional interests.

I think a lot of those came out when I described some of the things I have done throughout my career. My primary interest has been become understanding and promoting the development of young biomedical scientists and clinicians, and understanding and promoting that as a science in itself. I am currently working primarily with young faculty, particularly clinician investigators, and helping them with the very complex career of balancing clinical care with research. They also have a difficult task of developing the skills of a scientist after they have spent many years in clinical training. I’m also working on refinement of training models to address the often hit or miss qualities of mentor-based teaching and learning, such as group and peer-based methods to develop scientific thinking and grant writing expertise.

How did you become interested in education, and what drives your work in student training programs?

My interests in education and student development in general took hold in the middle of my first professional position at Georgetown. It arose out of an amazing experience with the Georgetown University Experimental Medical Students (GEMS) program and the Ph.D. program in Pharmacology. It was probably most catalyzed by the realization that I was not good at lecture-based teaching but had a gift for what back then was called “student-centered teaching” that grew out of the work of Carl Rogers. I had some early opportunities during a sabbatical to develop my interests in teaching, learning and counseling as well.

My interests in assisting underrepresented groups probably stems from growing up in the civil rights era, but has been fueled by the unique opportunity to make a difference in some lives and to help individuals achieve their dreams, and the incredible appreciation individuals express when they do. At the same time, I became interested in the core principles of teaching and learning and how they often are not known or followed by many teachers, and how to systematically study and modify them.

What are some of your outside interests?

Camping, hiking, canoeing, biking and photography.

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

I’ve never put this into words before, but probably a complete belief in the value of each individual and the primary role of an educator in helping them discover and become whatever they want to be. Also, the absolute mission of the scientist to dispassionately discover, working to keep biases at bay, and keep looking for questions others might not think to ask; the pursuit of answers. I also have a true belief in the value of diversity in its broadest terms. And, the realization of the inherent limitations and risks to the individual posed by the classical mentor-based training models of biomedical science and the need to augment them with other approaches.

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

In medicine, it would be a restructuring to view access to medical care as a fundamental human and social right.

In research, it probably would be a careful refinement of the supply and demand workforce model of today that is intertwined with research training. I am very concerned that we are educating and developing a wealth of talented young biomedical scientists without sufficient capacity for them to have stable lives using those talents.

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

The biggest change in medicine is likely the explosion of debt that students now acquire and how that impacts and puts limits on their career choices. This is especially true for any who seek academic careers and a balance between practice and research. The other is the continuing advancement of new treatment approaches as a result of huge advancement in basic biomedical knowledge.

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

For medical students it probably would be to go into medicine for the right reasons, and keep focused on mastering the analytical base of knowledge to drive medical decisions, rather than just customary local practices.

For doctorate students I would say, as you progress through graduate school focus on controlling and guiding your own future. Analyze your strengths and what you still need to master and don’t wait for someone else to decide what they think you should do with your scientific and other skills.

What do you see as "the future" of medical education?

Curricula will continually be ‘reformed’ trying to figure out how to help students master the exploding knowledge base and the complex skills required while having a life too. I think debt burdens will continue to rise, the access to precise information that reveals biological differences between individuals will dramatically increase (necessitating more focus on helping students know how to use it), and the willingness of young adults to commit to endless hours of work will continue to abate.

2010 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients

Award for Achievement

Award for Service

Early Achievement


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