Physician-scientist Wonder Drake, M.D., ‘94, associate professor of Medicine and Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, has focused her research on understanding the pathogenesis of sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory disease that strikes multiple organ systems in the body. She is the newly named director of the Sarcoidosis Center of Excellence.
What about sarcoidosis attracted your attention as a researcher and clinician?
A young man who developed renal failure due to sarcoidosis piqued my initial interest. He came to my office complaining of extreme fatigue. It turned out that he had renal failure. His kidney biopsy was consistent with sarcoidosis. Patients usually get better with steroids, but he did not. I remember the look on his face when I told him that I thought we were headed to dialysis. He had a wife and two small children; it just did not seem fair that he would not be able to work and take care of them. It really motivated me to want to identify more therapeutics for sarcoidosis.
What do you find most rewarding about your interaction with patients?
A.There is a closeness that results from working with patients to solve their health problems. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of trying to solve their medical problems, the satisfaction that comes with helping them understand their disease. It is exhilarating to see patients get better.
What is the ultimate goal of your research?
My goal is twofold: 1) To identify the most significant contributors to sarcoidosis progression and 2) to develop the most effective interventions that will cure this disease.
What’s an example of an obstacle or setback you’ve experienced, and how did you overcome it?
My experience with research prior to my clinical fellowship didn’t go well, and I wasn’t sure it was a career option for me. But working with [then-faculty member] Martin Blaser as a medical student and fellow opened my eyes to the intellectual stimulation in research, the familial atmosphere of the lab, and the capacity to help others. Later I realized that a physician-scientist career worked well for families also.
Who were the teachers or mentors who were most influential?
There have been so many human contributors to the person I am today. For example, my uncle had a successful dairy farm in Hillsboro, Alabama, which was not appreciated by the nearby white community. But when the depression occurred, my uncle gave milk to any family that came to him. The community went from resenting his farm to being grateful for it. Decades later, I was at my uncle’s side as he was dying. A Caucasian farmer came and told me of his gratitude to my uncle for helping his family survive the depression. The importance of my uncle’s forgiveness resonates with me today. Also, really bright, innovative people, like Dr. Gordon Bernard and Chancellor Nick Zeppos, who have committed their careers to helping the Vanderbilt community reach new heights, continue to have a big influence on me.