A few years ago, Dr. Anthony Jevnikar, MD’81, organized a workshop to discuss potential new research in transplantation. He sat in the audience and watched as a 15-year-old kidney transplant patient took the stage with his mother, who also happened to be his organ donor.
The pair were invited to the workshop to share their inspirational story, and to answer any questions the physicians and researchers had for them. Nearing the end of the question and answer period, a gentleman from the audience stood up and asked the mother, “what do you think we should be doing to improve transplantation and transplant research?”
Most attendees assumed she would speak about the need to develop better drugs, or to increase the number of organ donors in Canada — comments Dr. Jevnikar and his colleagues had heard time and time again. Instead the woman answered with a much different response.
“She simply stated, ‘if you could just solve why people get kidney disease, then my son wouldn’t have needed a kidney transplant’,” Dr. Jevnikar said. “It was truly one of those ‘ta-da’ moments. Now when I talk to people about thinking upstream about problems, I always bring up that story to remind them of the bigger questions and the bigger picture.”
The start of a fulfilling career
Being able to look at the big picture is something that Dr. Jevnikar has had the ability to do since the beginning of his career.
Born and raised in London, Ontario, Dr. Jevnikar completed an Honours Bachelor of Science in Microbiology at Western University — a decision that helped him recognize his fascination with the field of transplantation. It was this interest that pushed Dr. Jevnikar to complete his Master of Science in Immunology, and eventually pursue medical school at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
Prior to attending medical school, Dr. Jevnikar already knew he enjoyed conducting health care research. But it was during his clinical rotations that he realized how much he loved working with patients on the clinical side of things. It became clear to him that he wanted an academic career that would allow him to blend patient care with research — he wanted to work as a clinician-scientist.
Dr. Jevnikar moved to Boston, Massachusetts to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard University. After he completed the fellowship, he was offered a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
“It was a difficult decision to make to come back to London because I was also offered a position at Harvard University, which was obviously very attractive,” Dr. Jevnikar said. “However, it was at that time in my life when I realized a career is made up of many things, including your family, colleagues and the environment you work in. Because of that, I don’t think I could have made a better choice — London has been a great home for myself, Nancy and out two sons Steven and Jeffrey who are engineers.”
Making an impact
Since Dr. Jevnikar made the decision to start his career at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in the early 1990s, his professional life has blossomed in ways he never imagined. The clinician-scientist has had the opportunity to take on several academic and administrative roles that have allowed him to made a huge impact on the lives of patients, and on the way transplantation research is conducted in London.
On top of his clinical work, Dr. Jevnikar currently holds multiple positions including Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Surgery at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry; Co-Director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at University Hospital; and, most recently, the Scientific Director of the Matthew Mailing Centre for Translational Transplantation Research — a Centre he helped develop and open in late 2011.
Before the Matthew Mailing Centre was created, transplantation research in London was fragmented across the city — there was research taking place at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Robarts Research Institute and at the various hospitals. When the Lindros Legacy Research Building opened in 2010, Dr. Jevnikar recognized the opportunity to develop a space that could be dedicated to translational transplant research.
“I saw that as a huge challenge but we were able to fundraise millions of dollars through private donations to make it happen,” Dr. Jevnikar explained. “I am really proud of what we’ve done here, because there is no centre like it. The scientists that work here, like myself, are dedicated to making an impact in the area of translational transplant research.”
A lifetime of achievements
Dr. Jevnikar’s hard work and dedication to the field of transplantation was recently awarded with a Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented at the annual Awards of Excellence celebration.
“I am very lucky to have had a great support system, because receiving awards like the Lifetime Achievement Award always comes from team work,” Dr. Jevnikar said. “When it comes to translational research, a champion is usually needed to move things forward, but success comes to those who have been fortunate enough to work in an environment that allows them to be those champions.”
Even though Dr. Jevnikar sees himself at the beginning of the end of his career, there are a few more things he would like to “champion” before he retires.
His major goal is to lead the establishment of the Dr. Robert Zhong Chair in Transplantation, which will help position Schulich Medicine & Dentistry as a leader in the next frontier of transplantation — organ regeneration.
“Down the road, the idea that we took organs from living and deceased patients to save someone else will seem extreme, bold and maybe even a bit primitive,” Dr. Jevnikar said, explaining that we will soon be able to create organs for transplantation. “I know we are capable of this, and I don’t want us to be watching from the sidelines — I want us taking part in the parade, developing the floats."
Although he may not be around to see the fruits of his labour, Dr. Jevnikar believes that we shouldn’t be focused only on the projects that we know we can finish.
“This work ends when we solve the transplant problem — when no one will ever require another transplant, and everyone’s organs work well,” he said. “Until then, we will always have work to do and there will always be projects to start.”
Connecting the dots
Dr. Jevnikar has had the opportunity to work with and mentor many bright minds that will one day lead the way in health care and research. While working with these medical students, trainees and residents, he has observed that many of them are more concerned about finding employment than he ever was at the beginning of his career.
“I did nephrology and transplantation because that is what I loved to do, but now it’s easy to see how detailed people are in planning their lives,” he said. “Sometimes I think it is more fun to not let your life have a blueprint — sometimes you just have to take a chance at things.”
Dr. Jevnikar encourages people to listen to the commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2010 — a speech he finds himself coming back to again and again when he needs inspiration.
“In his address, Steve Jobs explains that you can’t connect the dots in your life looking forward — you can only connect them looking backwards,” he said. “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. That is what happened to me, and I hope that trainees and medical students and residents can step back and realize that when making the important decisions in their life.”