First Annual Neil L. Spector Art of Medicine Award Bestowed

Kimberly Johnson

spector art of medicine awardeesThe first annual Neil L. Spector Art of Medicine Award, which recognizes "exemplary mentorship practices in clinical and translational research," was presented last month to Kimberly Johnson, MD, MHS (Senior Mentor Award) and Kim Huffman, MD, PhD (Junior Mentor Award) by the Department of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine.

The award was established after the June 2020 passing of Neil Spector, MD, a nationally recognized Duke Cancer Institute physician-scientist, translational research leader, and oncology mentor. Eleven years after having a heart transplant due to irreparable damage from Lyme carditis, he'd developed a clinically aggressive post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder in early 2020 and was hospitalized.

According to the Department of Medicine, "recipients of the award demonstrate qualities well represented by Spector in his interactions with his patients, colleagues, and trainees: integrity, compassion, altruism, respect, and empathy."
Kimberly Johnson, MD, MHS, who received the Neil L. Spector Art of Medicine Award in the Senior Mentor Award category, is a DCI member, a professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, and Kim director of the Duke Center for Research to Advance Healthcare Equity — also known as the REACH Equity Center. Her current research focus is in reducing health disparities, particularly disparities in the quality of hospice, palliative care, and advance care planning for older African Americans. Johnson is also a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. In April 2021, she received the Duke University School of Medicine "Career Mentoring Award in Clinical Science – Population Health."

The Department of Medicine on Johnson's selection:

"Dr. Johnson’s unique ability to see all levels of influence and all angles of the research dilemma make her the type of mentor you want to be around all the time, absorbing wisdom and trying, however impossible, to emulate her ability to orchestrate, interpret, and lead. These unique skills make her a truly miraculous mentor. The downstream effect of her mentorship will be felt for generations of researchers to come through Duke and beyond.”

Kim Huffman, MD, PhD, who received the Neil L. Spector Art of Medicine Award in the Junior Mentor Award category, is an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of  Rheumatology and Immunology, whose research focus is determining the role of physical activity in modulating health outcomes (cardiovascular disease risk) in persons with rheumatologic diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, gout, osteoarthritis). She is a member of Duke Molecular Physiology Institute and an affiliate of the Regeneration Next Initiative. She is not a DCI member.

The Department of Medicine on Huffman's selection:

“Kim embodies all of the characteristics of an exceptional mentor. She is singularly focused on helping her mentees identify their research passion and connecting them with the collaborators and resources they need to achieve success. She has an astute scientific mind and through her mentorship is able to develop that skill in her mentees. And on top of that, she is a wonderful person who genuinely cares about her mentees and other team members.”


On May 28, 2021, Spector's widow Denise Spector, PhD, joined a special Medicine Grand Rounds during which Johnson and Huffman highlighted their mentorship best practices.
At the event, Spector (Denise) shared a touching anecdote about how mentorship can have a lasting impact:

"I had a very bittersweet experience recently that brought me to tears from emotions of both sorrow and joy, following an email from one of Neil’s recent mentees (Nathan Hawkey, MD) at the Cancer Center. It was definitely a moment of finding equanimity. He wrote to inform me of a research grant he received. He stated, 'As soon as I heard the news about this funding, Neil was the first person who I thought of and it breaks my heart that I cannot tell him directly (though, I know he is proud and happy for me). He provided the spark and inspiration for the work I am doing. This gives me great motivation and strength. I still think of him almost every day and continue to work on living up to the person who he would know I could be.' I was so touched that he reached out to share both his great news and his expressions of how meaningful Neil’s mentorship was to him." 

Neil and Denise Spector
Dr. Neil Spector's legacy lives on in many ways. This past year, the Bay Area Lyme Foundation provided a grant of more than $2 million to support Lyme disease research at Duke in honor of Spector, who also served on the Foundation’s scientific board.
Last week she reflected on the vision of the Neil L. Spector Art of Medicine Award created in honor of her husband, and how it's bringing comfort at this difficult time — the one-year anniversary of his death (June 14, 2020).
"I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Jeremy Force, who came to me last year with the idea to establish an award in my dear, beloved Neil’s honor at Duke, which coincided with my desire to find a way to honor Neil’s legacy as well. I am so thankful to Dr. Force, as well as to Dr. Alspaugh and Dr. Cooney for being instrumental in making the Neil L. Spector Art of Medicine mentoring award a reality," Spector (Denise) wrote in an email.

On the art of medicine and mentorship, she wrote:

"In addition to Neil’s great intellect in his scientific endeavors he was also a gifted clinician and mentor who truly embraced the art of medicine. The art of medicine is a concept that has been around for many years and implies that medicine is in part an art form as well as having roots in science. It also implies excellence of character and human action, which not only can positively impact patients, but mentees as well. Neil exemplified the best characteristics of a “true” mentor. Mentorship is a valuable tool for helping to clarify a mentee’s vision and assist in turning it into reality. A strong, caring mentor not only guides and advises their mentees towards building a successful career, but they do so in a way that allows the mentee to feel respected and heard, never leaving them feeling demeaned and demoralized. Strong healthcare mentoring programs help develop high quality mentor-mentee relationships and can be one way to help prevent and/or alleviate some of the negative sequelae of burnout, both for the mentor and mentee. When mentoring works well in organizations, it's common to see increased levels of productivity, satisfaction, and higher morale. The Duke University School of Medicine’s mentoring program should be a catalyst for improving the lives of residents and fellows, and in turn the lives of the patients they serve, which is the ultimate goal. My hope is that this annual award will recognize physicians who excel as mentors, as well as help to inspire and motivate others towards the development of outstanding mentorship skills."

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