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May 24, 2018

Jennifer Lawton, H’99, returns to campus as Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor

Cardiac surgeon Jennifer Lawton, H'99

Cardiac surgeon Jennifer Lawton, H’99, returned to the MCV Campus as the 2018 Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor and guest judge for the Department of Surgery’s research day.

The value the VCU School of Medicine has long placed on research impacted Jennifer Lawton, M.D., H’99, in a way she will never forget.

“I learned how to do it all here,” Lawton says. “The benefits of an environment like that can’t be underestimated. Without the training and time in the lab I put in here, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Today, she is the first woman to head the Johns Hopkins Division of Cardiac Surgery. She also serves as director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory and program director for the cardiothoracic fellowship training program.

Lawton returned to the MCV Campus in April 2018 as the Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor and guest judge for the Department of Surgery’s research day. She spoke to the audience on the topic, “Why on earth would you want to be a surgeon-scientist?”

Most importantly, she says, it’s because surgeons can ultimately bring research to the bedside. “We are precisely the people who know the areas of need. We know the patients and the problems they face. We see it every day.”

Surgeon-scientists, she adds, will contend with critics who say they are either spending too much time on research or too much time in the operating room. Yet for her, it’s worth it to strive for the right mix. “I find it very invigorating to find those benefits for patients.”

Not to mention, points out Stuart McGuire Surgery Chair Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., there’s no question about Lawton’s success on both sides of the spectrum. “She is a great researcher and a great surgeon, and very well known in the profession. We were looking to bring in someone with significant interest in research and a practicing surgeon. She is outstanding.”

Lawton’s research interests include women and heart disease, and gender differences in cardiac surgery. As a funded surgeon-scientist, she studies protection of the heart muscle by examining the responses of isolated heart cells (myocytes) in response to stress and the role of a cardioprotective ion channel in the heart.

She has spent much of her career raising awareness of heart disease as the leading cause of death for adult women in the U.S. through her advocacy as a leading authority with the American Heart Association.

The death of Lawton’s grandparents from heart disease led her to medicine. But in high school, she began to question her decision until her mother told her to “just try it and jump in. Everything is going to work out alright.”

The key, she adds, is having a champion in the workplace and at home.

The Brooks-Lower Grand Rounds Lecture is named for two beloved professors in the School of Medicine, James W. Brooks, M.D., and Richard R. Lower, M.D. While Lawton says she missed working with Lower by a few years, she trained in the research lab with technicians who had trained under the pioneering transplant physician. “He is responsible for so much of how heart transplants are performed today.

“I was fortunate to be here with Dr. Brooks, although I never rotated on thoracic,” she says. “But I had knowledge of his wardrobe habits,” describing his famous bow tie, hat, towel and stethoscope ensemble, much to the delight of the audience at the April lecture.

Lawton asked the crowd to help carry on Lower’s and Brooks’ legacies. “We need you. We need you to be role models to the next generation, especially women.”

By Polly Roberts

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016