Kevin Thomas, MD – Mentoring the Next Generation of Physician Scientists

June 30, 2015

If you’ve ever doubted the power of mentoring, a quick conversation with Kevin Thomas, MD, will change your mind.

“Being a physician wasn’t even a glimmer in my brain until after I had already started college,” says Thomas, who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology. "I know that I wouldn’t be a doctor without the grace of God and certain people I encountered at critical junctures in my life."

Thomas is now passing forward the power of mentoring by serving as the associate director of the CTSA-supported TL1 program. This program provides financial and mentoring assistance to medical students who spend two years in the Duke Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP), earning a Master of Health Sciences (MHS).

Here, in his own words, are Kevin Thomas’ reflections on working at an institution that allows him to combine research, clinical care, and the mentoring of the next generation of physician scientists.


When people ask what you do at Duke, how do you answer?

I spend 70 percent of my time taking care of patients and teaching cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology fellows. I care for individuals who have electrical problems in their hearts that we can treat in the Electrophysiology Lab with ablation procedures. The other 30 percent of my time I spend in clinical research focused on health disparities. Since May 1, 2015, I have been serving as the associate director of the CTSA-supported TL1 program. In all these areas, I am very involved in mentoring trainees and serving as a champion for career development.

Why is mentoring so significant for you?

During my junior year at Emory University, Larry Keith from UNC-CH School of Medicine came to campus to recruit for a summer pre-med program. There was something between us that clicked, and when he asked if I would come to UNC for the summer program, I said “If you represent what this program is about, it is definitely something I would be interested in.” I reflect often on how meeting someone who takes an interest in you at a critical point in your life can change its direction.

Throughout my time at Duke, I have had medical students, residents, and fellows – especially under-represented minorities – approach me for mentoring and career advice. A little over a year ago I started a mentoring group where faculty, fellows, residents, and medical students from Duke and UNC get together every two to three months. It is a chance to discuss career options and explore opportunities to get involved in collaborative research projects. We are trying to put these younger people in positions we think will make them successful as physician scientists.

Where does your interest in health disparities come from?

I’m a cardiac electrophysiologist by training, but I have a passion for research aimed at addressing racial and ethnic health disparities/differences. I grew up in a family where we didn’t see the doctor unless it was an emergency. My mother was a single parent and the focus was more on keeping the rent paid and the lights on than on health prevention. It just wasn’t part of the culture; there were many competing interests.

My grandfather, a World War II veteran, took great pride in his physical strength, but I watched him become blind and lose both legs because he didn’t understand how to take care of his diabetes.

I can reflect on my own experience and see how one population may think about health differently than another, based on traditions and behaviors that are learned and passed down. These affect outcomes. But they represent an opportunity for change. That’s what I get excited about.

What is the biggest challenge in working with the TL1 Program?

I see two challenges. The first is to help students see the value of committing extra time to learning clinical research. I know that for me, it was a tough decision to spend an extra year in medical school exposing myself to research. In hindsight, I can see that it was a valuable investment for my career.

The goal is to help students understand the value to their future career of investing in an extra year of education. If they are willing to work hard, the opportunities for success are plentiful.

Additionally, another aspect of mentoring is making students and trainees aware of resources that can assist with the burden of financing their education. Many students – especially underrepresented minorities – are providing not only for themselves, but also for their immediate and even their extended families. Often students are looking to take the most direct path to a job that will allow them to take care of their financial commitments. We focus on helping trainees become aware of and submit competitive applications for programs such as the NIH loan repayment program.

The second challenge in the TL1 program is being supportive of the medical students without being too intrusive. They each have their own TL1 mentors, and we look for a strong mentor relationship when we review applications. But there are still opportunities for further mentoring, nurturing, and advice that we can provide.

What are you looking forward to in the next year?

I’m looking forward to working with David Edelman on the TL1 program, continuing to get to know these students, and helping them become the next generation of physician scientists. That’s what the program is all about. I’m also excited about continuing the Duke Health Disparities Curriculum that I’ve worked on with Laura Svetkey and Kimberly Johnson. We have designed a multidimensional one-year curriculum that provides individuals with a blueprint of how to conduct and integrate health disparities research. We take great pride and joy in it, and look forward to continuing it each year, with support from the CTSA.

What do you do when you are not at Duke?

I try to spend every waking minute with my wife Kristin, my 3-year-old son Gabriel, and my 19-month-old daughter Nadia. From the moment my kids wake up, they want to be outdoors, and I love that.

What was the last book you read?

“Jordan Rules” about Michael Jordan and his experience during his championship years in Chicago. It was inspirational to read about someone so committed to excellence.

You’ve been at Duke as a resident, fellow, and now faculty, since 1999. What’s a memorable moment for you at Duke?

I’m a sports fanatic, especially when it comes to basketball. In 2003-2004, I was a chief resident at Duke. I asked one of the environmental services staff members, who is also a UNC fan, to paint the chief residents’ office Carolina Blue. It caused quite a stir, and the day following an epic Duke/UNC game that year, a perpetrator responded by entering the office one night and plastering the walls with newspaper clippings of the Duke win. He or she even changed my screen saver to a picture of Chris Duhon scoring the winning basket. You gotta love it!