Celebrating a year in transplant

UCLA Former Users Transplant News

Having some fun at Halloween 2018 with some of my staff and colleagues from TREC/TRI.

As we approach the year’s end, rushing to meet deadlines and making time for family and friends, I can’t help but pause and take stock in all that we at TREC have accomplished this year. Together with our partners, we’ve published a dozen new papers and abstracts, presented at the American Transplant Conference and The Transplantation Society’s 2018 International Congress and the American Public Health Association’s 2018 Annual Meeting & Expo, launched four new studies to research ways to increase living donation and end the kidney donor shortage, won new grants to continue our research, and continued training new scientists and researchers in the field.

I was honored to be featured as a Woman of the Week on MM.LaFleur’s M Dashblog. And the TREC staff took part in a leadership seminar with academic leaders from all over the world, which I am pleased to present again in 2019. Through all of this, we’ve connected with many of you through social media and spread the word about Explore Transplant educational resources.

As I look back on this year of accomplishments by the TREC lab, by our partners, by my staff in both their professional and personal lives, one particular accomplishment, which is both professional and personal to me, stands out. On July 1, 2018, I fulfilled the biggest dream of my adult life. I became a full professor.

What does full professor mean? Simply put, the title places you in the top rank of your university, a position where beyond special honors (e.g., an endowed chair) there is no further advancement – except in the research itself and in the nurturing of future scholars. To reach full professor, a researcher generally begins with their doctorate, followed by postdoc work, assistant professorship, and then associate professorship, which usually comes with tenure. Many highly accomplished academics finish out their careers at the associate level. To reach full professorship means being recognized as an academic of vision, with a national and/or international reputation, someone who has made a significant impact in their field.

The process for being promoted to full professor includes external reviews of your body of research work and contribution to the field, decisions by your academic department, recommendations by members of other departments, and high-ranking university officials such as the dean and board of governors. Full professor is seldom achieved before a person reaches their mid-40s; the process generally takes 10 to 20 years. How many associates reach full professorship varies from one institution to another, and it’s worth noting that fewer women are awarded the title than men – according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, men are five times more likely to reach full professorship in medicine than women. It is a great honor to me to have reached this position.

A few things I didn’t realize about this journey before I started:

Becoming a full professor is about other people as much as it is about you. While it may look like a single career accomplishment, it’s really the culmination of the work of many people who stood before me, beside me, and behind me, backing me up, and supporting me. To date, I have published almost 100 journal articles with 298 individual researchers. Each study, each paper, each grant is the result of a collaborative effort of these scientists. That isn’t even counting all of the staff and interns who have worked in my lab.

Getting to full professor is about the people who mentored you and stood for your scientific and creative vision. It’s about getting help. At every step in my career I have had incredible support. I remember my parents helping me copy my first educational manuals and put them in three-ring binders. Then there was the time a kidney patient paid for me to attend a conference to benefit my work. The list of people who have hired me, goaded me, helped me, is very long.

And it’s about a lot of people partnering with you, in all kinds of ways, in accomplishing your scientific and creative goals.   I have so many wonderful collaborators in research at UCLA and the Terasaki Research Institute.  Daily, I work with health literacy experts Catina O’Leary and Christina Goalby, who helped design Explore Transplant, Amanda Faye Lipsey, my writing partner, Crystal Anderson, my Survey Center leader, Jennifer Beaumont and John Devin Peipert who contribute their expertise in analysis, and Karen Handelman, a web designer of amazing online platforms for our work. Matthew Everly and I are always brainstorming on innovative ways to solve the organ donor shortage.  These people and the teams they lead are kind and smart.

This journey is also about holding firm to a singular, but hard-to-accomplish big vision. It’s about taking on a cause bigger than yourself, something difficult, but worth doing. The goal of solving the organ-donor shortage and inspiring people to be generous to others who are vulnerable is the motivation behind all of my research and educational work.

Along this journey there is also doubt, and there will be times when you fail yourself –a lot more than people admit at national conferences. On the inevitable dark nights of the soul, when doubt and fear arise, I go back to the cause, what is right for the patients, and try again the next day.

It’s about believing in yourself –that you have something to say, even when you don’t know what that is exactly. The gift of research is that “not knowing” gives you a place to start. I test. I learn. I discover. Too many people, in my opinion, have to know before they begin.

This journey has taken over 20 years, and, surprisingly, reaching this point has changed what I value. It began with many “firsts” –my first article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the first time my work was mentioned in a national magazine (Time), getting tenure, my first million-dollar grant as a primary investigator, an invitation to be the keynote speaker in 2016 at the Organ Donation Summit at the White House, and many more.

As you get closer to full professor, you begin to see the value of training the next generation of doctors and researchers, and the parade of “firsts” continues –hooding my first PhD student, my first lab team members being accepted into medical and graduate schools, watching my staff start families and learn, along with me, how to juggle the complexities of work and family. In my role as a mentor, I get to have a career where I have the opportunity to tell virtually everyone, every day that they are amazing and deserve the best professional and personal life possible. And then I get to improve healthcare so that they can.

My staff told me that this promotion requires that I now step back and let them do more in running the lab. They want me to relax and have more of a life. I was instructed to waste more time and play more. I love that my team supports me by demanding that I just go home.

But do you know why I continue to stay at work a little too long? Because I believe my career in organ donation makes something better, both for patients and also for the world at large. It is a constant beacon of hope that connection and caring really does still matter. I am grateful that UCLA has given me the privilege of promoting me to being one of their full professors this year. I am free. I am peaceful. I am of service. I am grateful for this career and this life.

As we at TREC close out 2018, and I look back on all of our accomplishments, I am tremendously grateful for our primary partner the Terasaki Research Institute, and all their support.

I’d also like to thank our many collaborators: UCLAHealth Literacy Media,Insight Policy Research, StoryTapExplore Transplant Ontario, Kaiser Permanente Southern California, the National Kidney Registry, the funders who support our work, and all the contributors along the way.

Here’s to a new year, new partnerships, and new ways to improve healthcare for all. — Amy D. Waterman