Big ideas

Meet six UF College of Medicine graduates who are impacting the lives of many through their innovative spirits.

By: Melanie Stawicki Azam

From the invention of Gatorade to helping reduce the global impact of tuberculosis to the development of the Human Patient Simulator, the UF College of Medicine and its graduates have had a long history of innovation and are pushing the boundaries of knowledge.It is the work of our graduates that determines the prestige of the college, and there are innovative, creative and compassionate alumni throughout the country who are changing health care for the better.

In this issue of Florida Physician, we highlight six UF medical graduates who are among countless Gator physicians who are making a difference and impacting the lives of many.

Understanding Alzheimer’s

Steven T. DeKosky, MD '74

Steven T. DeKosky, MD ’74

Steven T. DeKosky became intrigued with the workings of the brain after taking an undergraduate psychology course.

Forty years later, the current vice president and dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine is still fascinated by how a 3-pound mass of tissue can hold a lifetime of emotions and experiences.

That curiosity has propelled the 1974 UF COM graduate to become an international leader in the field of Alzheimer’s disease research.

“I was very interested in memory function early on,” said DeKosky, a neurologist. “Then here comes this human disease. I wanted to know why it happens in humans.”

Intent on learning how Alzheimer’s could alter the brain to make access to decades of memories disappear, he focused his research on the early pathological and chemical changes that occur in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease develops.

An internationally known expert in translational research for Alzheimer’s disease, DeKosky has won prestigious national awards for his work, including the Ronald Reagan Research Institute Award in 2005, and he led a National Institutes of Health-funded Alzheimer’s Prevention trial that involved 3,000 people at sites across the country.

“I was very interested in memory function early on. Then here comes this human disease. I wanted to know why it happens in humans.”

Steven T. DeKosky, MD ’74

A Philadelphia native, DeKosky came to UF for graduate studies in neuroscience and psychology but was encouraged by Professor Fred King, director of the Center for Neurobiological Sciences, to apply to the College of Medicine.

Graduating from the college in 1974, DeKosky completed an internal medicine residency at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and then returned to UF for a neurology residency.

Working with mentors like Ken Heilman, MD, and Mel Greer, MD, DeKosky said it was an exciting time for neurology with new technology, like CT and PET scanners, allowing detailed images of patients’ brains to be seen for the first time.

DeKosky completed a postdoctoral fellowship in neurochemistry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where he first began working with brains afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

He spent 11 years at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, serving as co-director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and interim chair of neurology. In 1992, he was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was first head of the Alzheimer Center and chief of the division of geriatrics and neuropsychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. After 10 years he became chair of the department of neurology. At Pittsburgh, he also directed a program that was developing clinical trials of a PET scan tracer, Pittsburgh Compound B (PiB), that detects the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain. The tracer can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and track the effectiveness of treatment and prevention therapies.

“The work I was doing in Pittsburgh was very exciting,” he said.

DeKosky decided to take a different path when he became vice president and dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine in 2008.

As a medical school dean, DeKosky, who is married with two grown daughters, said he has less time for research now. However, he heads the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, is involved in neuroimaging research, and treats memory disorder patients. He is leading the UVA School of Medicine at a pivotal time, overseeing the recent opening of a new cutting-edge medical education building and the implementation of a revised curriculum, as well as co-directing the health system’s strategic planning.

Although UVA was established much earlier than UF, DeKosky sees many similarities between the two state schools, which are both challenged with providing the best education and research opportunities despite diminishing state revenues. He is excited to watch his alma mater as it rolls out its new medical school curriculum this fall and works toward constructing a new medical education building.

“The parallels are very interesting,” DeKosky said. “For me, watching Florida do all these things is a great source of pride.”

Helping others find the gift of new life

Carl M. Herbert III, MD '78

Carl M. Herbert III, MD ’78

Carl M. Herbert III, MD, has helped bring new life to families around the globe.

An internationally known fertility specialist and president of the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco, Herbert has assisted patients from as far away as Japan become parents through invitro fertilization and other infertility treatments.

The 1978 UF College of Medicine graduate has been performing IVF longer than any other physician in the San Francisco Bay area. Before founding his own clinic, he helped develop one of the first assisted reproductive technology programs in the U.S. at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“I can’t imagine anything as exciting and rewarding…and yet incomplete,” said Herbert of his field. “The science and practice of infertility has come a long way since the early 1980s. I expect there will continue to be many opportunities for us to learn and improve in the future.”

A fourth-generation physician, he is the son of Gainesville obstetrician and gynecologist Carl Herbert Jr., MD, who was known for delivering one of the first sets of surviving quadruplets in Gainesville in the 1950s.

Herbert attended boarding school in New Jersey as a teen and Rutgers University for college. His first visit to San Francisco was when he hitchhiked to the city in the summer of 1968.

“I pumped gas at a Shell Station and it’s still there,” Herbert said with a laugh. “The summer of love in San Francisco was in ’67—but the summer of ’68 was slightly more subdued.”

He returned to Gainesville for a master’s degree in environmental engineering sciences and medical school at UF.

“I really loved going to school there,” Herbert said. “The stimulating experience of learning and my medical education provided me with fond memories and a solid foundation upon which to build.”

Herbert completed his OB/GYN residency and a reproductive endocrinology fellowship at Vanderbilt University. At Vanderbilt, he was on the ground floor of the pioneering work in the field of reproductive endocrinology and infertility.

He said he was incredibly lucky to be a part of Vanderbilt’s IVF program in those early difficult and formative years in the area of IVF, and he contributed to numerous articles, as those in the field explored ways to improve success rates.

“The work was exciting and challenging,” he said. “It was awe-inspiring.”

Herbert also worked with the first laser laparoscope and wrote several early articles on endoscopic surgery, including one of the very first articles published on the treatment of tubal disease via laser laparoscopy.

After serving as director of Vanderbilt’s reproductive endocrinology/infertility division, Herbert decided in 1990 that he was ready for a change. He served as medical director for two different fertility clinics in San Francisco before founding his own business.

Herbert and four other partners purchased Pacific Fertility Centers in 1999, which now includes six physicians. The clinic treats a diversity of families and offers a variety of male and female infertility treatments, including IVF, egg donation and embryo freezing.

“Because we deal with the very beginnings of life, we are ever mindful of medical ethics as we care for patients.”

Carl M. Herbert III, MD ’78

Past president of the Society For Humanism in Medicine, Herbert continues to be involved with reproductive research and medical ethics.

He believes the next frontier in the reproductive field will involve genetics. New discoveries could free unborn children of certain diseases but may also raise new ethical issues to consider.

“Because we deal with the very beginnings of life, we are ever mindful of medical ethics as we care for patients.”

Unlocking the secrets of the heart

Warren M. Jackman, MD '76

Warren M. Jackman, MD ’76

For cardiac electrophysiologist Warren M. (Sonny) Jackman, MD ’76, deciphering an electrocardiogram is similar to an archeologist trying to unlock the meaning of an ancient language.

“Electrocardiograms don’t lie. They give the answer if you keep trying to interpret them,” said the 1976 UF College of Medicine graduate, who is co-founder and senior adviser of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center’s Heart Rhythm Institute.

Known as a thought leader in the field of cardiac arrhythmias, Jackman is one of the most prominent electrophysiologists in the country for the treatment of supraventricular tachycardia, including atrial fibrillation, which is the most common kind of irregular heartbeat.

Like some people who have an ear for music, Jackman has a natural ability to understand the language of the heart. During residency, he recalled “hanging out” at the heart station and reading EKGs for fun.

“I always looked at them as puzzles. I like trying to figure it out,” he said.

Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms usually caused by an electrical “shortcircuit” in the heart. If Jackman can figure out the heart’s message, he can discover how electrical impulses are traveling through a patient’s heart and determine where to fix the problem without damaging healthy areas nearby.

His talent has led to plenty of success. Jackman became the youngest person to receive the prestigious Pioneer in Pacing and Electrophysiology award from the North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology, now the Heart Rhythm Society. He also received the 2006 Mirowski Award for Excellence in Clinical Cardiology and Electrophysiology for his contributions. Lecturing internationally, he has served as an investigator on research grants from the National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association and other organizations.

“I still love looking at the electrograms and trying to see what the heart is telling us. There are a lot of parts that are missing and I still want to find them.”

Warren M. Jackman, MD ’76

A native of North Miami Beach, Jackman initially studied aeronautical engineering at Georgia Tech but decided to change to medicine, forcing himself to overcome his queasiness at the sight of blood.

“Medicine was hard for me in the early days because I always worried that I was missing some important finding in many of the really ill patients,” he said.

Jackman became interested in cardiology as a medical student after reading a book on heart rhythms while rotating at the VA Hospital under former UF cardiologist R. Charles Curry, MD,’69, who became his first mentor.

“It’s your teachers who lead you to find the beauty in medicine,” Jackman said.

UF medical students were also taught a strong ethical responsibility for the well-being of their patient, which Jackman said still resounds with him today.

“You were expected to learn everything you could about the patients and to help them to the best of your ability,” he said.

After an internal medicine residency at Wake Forest and completing a fellowship in cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Jackman joined the faculty of the University of Oklahoma in 1982.

Working with Ralph Lazzara, MD, who led the University of Oklahoma’s Cardiac Arrhythmia Research Institute, Jackman immersed himself in clinical research and became known internationally for the novel catheter ablation techniques he developed.

But, despite his decades of research, there are plenty of secrets that remain about the heart that Jackman still wants to uncover.

“I still love looking at the electrograms and trying to see what the heart is telling us,” he said. “There are a lot of parts that are missing and I still want to find them.”

A pioneer in cancer care

Alan Porter, MD '71

Alan Porter, MD ’71

When Alan Porter, MD, moved to Sarasota in the 1970s to practice radiation oncology, it was still an emerging specialty with just a handful of practitioners statewide.

Most radiation facilities in Florida were hospital-based, and the Sarasota hospital told him it wasn’t interested in pursuing the field, he said.

Undeterred, the UF College of Medicine 1971 graduate built one of the first privately owned freestanding outpatient centers for radiation oncology in Florida.

“I kind of struck out on my own and went into debt…tremendous debt,” Porter said.

When Porter Radiation Oncology opened in 1975, it joined just two other freestanding centers in the state, both of which were hospital-based. Today, his practice has grown to include locations in Sarasota, Venice, Englewood and Port Charlotte.

“I think if you do it yourself, although you have a lot of risk and exposure, you have a lot more control.”

Alan Porter, MD ’71

Brushing off his success, he said, “You try to do what’s right for the patient, and if the physicians you work with are pleased, they ask you to come to their community.”

If Porter makes it sound easy, it wasn’t. A pioneer in the field, he took a major risk investing in costly new equipment when insurance reimbursement for radiation oncology was almost nonexistent. His practice had one of the first linear accelerators in the state.

“I think if you do it yourself, although you have a lot of risk and exposure, you have a lot more control,” he said.

A longtime Florida Radiological Society member, Porter recalled visiting with insurance executives in the 1970s to advocate for the specialty.

“That took a number of years for (insurers) to figure out what we did,” he said. “That was a battle we had to fight.”

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Porter had planned to become a patent attorney. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in radiation physics from UF. During graduate school, he worked with Clyde Williams, MD, HS ’63, who was UF’s head of diagnostic radiology and convinced Porter to attend medical school.

Porter, listed in “Best Doctors in America” 1996-2010, eventually chose radiation oncology over diagnostic radiology because he liked the closer patient relationship. He was one of just five UF radiology residents, and they spent most of their time in the hospital basement, where the high-energy machines were kept. That’s also where he met his wife Claudia, an orthopaedic oncology nurse.

“Our treatment equipment was cobalt machines, which was the beginning of radiation therapy,” he said.

His mentor was Rodney Million, MD, UF’s first radiation oncology chair and a nationally recognized authority in therapeutic radiology for head and neck cancer.

When radiation oncologists in Florida needed time off, a UF resident would cover the practice. In fact, that is how Porter settled in Sarasota. He was covering for a local radiation oncologist, who was forced to retire after suffering a heart attack. Porter decided to stay — a decision that worked out well for him and for the people of Sarasota.

Porter, who is a founding trustee of the Hospice Foundation of Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, said he’d ultimately like to be remembered for “bringing a new cancer treatment to the Sarasota community.”

Shedding light on the cause of birth defects

Sonja Rasmussen, MD '90

Sonja Rasmussen, MD ’90

Growing up with a little brother with Down syndrome, pediatrician Sonja Rasmussen, MD, had a lot of questions.

Would Mark have the chance to grow up and live a long life? Why did he have this condition and what caused it? Would her own children be born with Down syndrome?

Those unknowns almost 50 years ago were what drove Rasmussen, a pediatrician and clinical geneticist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, to spend her career investigating the causes of birth defects and development disabilities.

The 1990 UF College of Medicine graduate’s discoveries have helped countless women and babies stay healthier, and in 2009, she was recognized by Research!America as a Public Health Hero for her work.

“I wanted other families to have more information than I did when I was growing up,” Rasmussen said.

Her novel research has led to a better understanding of the causes of birth defects due to factors such as drinking alcohol, smoking, taking certain medicines and obesity. Meanwhile, her work studying genetic factors has advanced the understanding of genetic conditions, like Down syndrome.

“We still don’t know the cause of about two-thirds of all birth defects,” said Rasmussen. “So there’s still a lot more work to do.”

A Minnesota native, Rasmussen received her master’s degree in medical genetics from the University of Wisconsin. In 1983, she accepted a position as a genetic counselor in UF’s department of pediatrics. In 1986, she enrolled in the UF College of Medicine.

“I knew I couldn’t be a full-fledged independent researcher without being a doctor,” she said.

During medical school, Rasmussen’s research interests were encouraged by mentors like Allen H. Neims, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics, and Jaime L. Frias, MD, a former department of pediatrics faculty member and head of the division of genetics.

“The faculty gave so generously of their time and truly cared for students at UF,” she said. “Everything that I’ve been able to do has been based on that background.”

In fact, her first experience with the CDC was during medical school, when Frias encouraged her to participate in the agency’s summer medical student research program in Atlanta.

“I felt like public health was a way I could impact people’s health on a larger scale.”

Sonja Rasmussen, MD ’90

After graduation, Rasmussen completed her pediatrics residency training at Massachusetts General Hospital and her fellowship training in clinical genetics at Johns Hopkins Hospital and UF. Married with two children, she joined the CDC in 1998, working as a senior scientist in its division of birth defects and developmental disabilities.

Currently deputy director of the CDC’s Influenza Coordination Unit, her research has expanded to include influenza and its effects on pregnant women and babies. She was also instrumental in formulating the agency’s pandemic influenza response plan.

“You can see one patient at a time or you can do research that affects a large number of people,” Rasmussen said. “I felt like public health was a way I could impact people’s health on a larger scale.”

Breaking down barriers to mental health

Sarah Y. Vinson, MD '07

Sarah Y. Vinson, MD ’07

Growing up in a small town in the Florida Panhandle, Sarah Y. Vinson, MD, saw plenty of health disparities and barriers to care.

But the 2007 UF College of Medicine graduate found that one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood areas of health care was mental health, particularly in the black community.

“I thought that there has to be a better way to reach people and give them information they can trust,” said Vinson, who is currently a child psychiatry fellow at Emory University and a graduate of the Cambridge Health Alliance Residency in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Vinson has always been creative in her outreach efforts, and last summer, she used technology to take it one step further by launching, a website with information, articles and a directory of mental health resources, especially for the black community.

“I found the Internet an attractive tool because it’s easily accessible,” said Vinson, the site’s founder and chief editor.

The site features interactive discussion forums, contributions from black mental health providers and articles written by patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and their family members.

“People find the site and want to contribute,” Vinson said. “I think they were hungry to have a place where they had a voice.”

Looking back, she said a lot of her ideas about health care disparities and psychiatry were formed at UF.

As a high school junior, she had never met a black doctor before she attended the UF College of Medicine’s Health Care Summer Institute, which is a summer camp for minority teens from North Central Florida. There she met Donna Parker, MD ’90, a pediatrician and the UF College of Medicine’s assistant dean for diversity and health equity, who became her mentor on disparity issues and working with underserved and minority communities. Later, Vinson was accepted into the UF’s junior honors medical program.

“I thought that there has to be a better way to reach people and give them information they can trust.”

Sarah Y. Vinson, MD ’07

She had planned on becoming a pediatrician, admitting that she had her own negative misconceptions about psychiatry. But during her first year of medical school, she heard a lecture on the neurobiology of addiction by Mark Gold, MD ’75, the current chair of UF’s department of psychiatry, that struck a nerve.

“Dr. Gold’s lecture helped me with seeing the biological components of mental illness and helped me conceptualize it as a medical issue,” Vinson said.

Gold also arranged for her to rotate at a number of different addiction sites the summer following her first year of medical school and introduced Vinson to people throughout the field.

Another psychiatrist who inspired her was Richard C. Christensen, MD, HS ’94, who is chief of the college’s division of public psychiatry and works with underserved communities in Jacksonville.

“He is clearly devoted to marginalized populations,” Vinson said. “He changed the way I saw psychiatry and what I could do as a psychiatrist.”

Overall, Vinson’s experiences led to her seeing “psychiatry as one of the largest areas of unmet need in the black community.”

While at Harvard, she wrote editorials for black newspapers in Boston highlighting mental health issues and organized a minority mental health outreach event at a library in a predominantly black neighborhood.

There are plenty of reasons why the black community is traditionally reluctant to discuss mental heath and illness, Vinson said. Some people fear being judged as weak or lacking in faith by their family and friends. Others face barriers such as a lack of insurance or access to care, fears and experiences of racism, and a mistrust of the system. Yet, untreated mental illness can cause relationship, work and health problems that can ruin lives.

“For me, sometimes it’s hard to leave my patients’ problems at work, especially with children and adolescents. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to see some amazing resilience,” Vinson said. “And a lot that I see reminds me of how blessed I am … and inspires me to do more and work harder.”