Introducing the AASLD president: J. Gregory Fitz


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.

As an innovative researcher, dedicated teacher, astute clinician, and capable leader, J. Gregory Fitz, “Greg” (Fig. 1), has made significant contributions to the science and practice of hepatology and now continues to advance the mission of the AASLD as president of the organization.

Figure 1.

Dr. J. Gregory Fitz.

Greg was born in Lakeland, Florida, although shortly after his birth the family moved to Hickory, North Carolina. Greg's father was a cardiologist, the first in Hickory, and a prominent member of the community who soon became a member of the North Carolina Medical Board. Hickory is a small town located near the mountains of western North Carolina. Known for its handmade furniture and textile industry, its proximity to the Appalachian Mountains provides a myriad of outdoor opportunities; growing up in this beautiful area of the country, it is easy to understand Greg's lifelong passion for the outdoors. Shortly after arriving in Hickory, Greg was enrolled in the local kindergarten where he met his wife-to-be, Linda. In fact, he and Linda would go on to attend elementary school, high school, and even college together. Linda states that, as a child, “Greg was involved in everything”; an active member of the student body, president of the student council, wrestler, and high school football player. After high school he and Linda attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) where Greg majored in Chemistry and Linda in Special Education. Greg graduated from UNC summa cum laude as a Morehead scholar and, as a crowning achievement to his early successes, he and Linda were married.

Greg's father was a significant influence in his decision to become a physician, as well as his decision to attend Duke University for medical school. The Fitz's had a strong history at Duke University, his father was also a Duke graduate and his mother previously worked for Dr. Eugene Stead, the Chair of Internal Medicine and a renowned medical educator, researcher, and founder of the Physician Assistant profession. Greg did not follow in his father's footsteps to become a cardiologist, however. In fact, Greg's early interest during medical school was in neurology and he worked in the laboratory of Dr. McNamara, performing research in experimental models of epilepsy. The young, aspiring researcher received the “Best Research Award” from the Epilepsy Foundation of America for this work. While it did not inspire a career as a neuroscientist, it nonetheless formed the foundation for his lifelong interest in ion channels and electrophysiology—the focus of his research activities for years to come.

Greg graduated from Duke medical school AOA (Alpha Omega Alpha), gave the class graduation speech, promptly moved with Linda and their new daughter, Rebecca, from the east coast to the west coast, and entered the Internal Medicine residency program at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). Greg recalls that UCSF was an excellent training venue where residents worked independently and were given significant leadership opportunities early in their careers. Greg successfully completed his residency in Internal Medicine, spent a year as Chief Resident, and then became the Assistant Chief of Medicine. He was recognized at this early stage in his career as being an excellent teacher and mentor for both the house staff and junior faculty, and soon became the Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Training Program. Greg recalls that during this period, Dr. Lloyd Hollingsworth “Holly” Smith, longtime Chair of Medicine at UCSF, served as a wonderful teacher and role model and provided valuable instruction to the new Program Director: “It's hard to read the handwriting on the wall when your back is up against it,” Greg recalls Holly saying.

Among other mentors, Greg recognizes Dr. Bruce Scharschmidt, Division Chief of GI at the time, as the one who introduced him to a laboratory world that embraced both clinical and research themes. He pursued a research fellowship in Gastroenterology, applying the previous knowledge and techniques gained from his early epilepsy research as a medical student to new and groundbreaking areas exploring hepatobiliary transport. Greg remembers fondly the young and dynamic lab and his colleagues at the time, including Steve Lidofsky and Jack Lake, all headed by Dr. Bruce Scharschmidt. The group shared “the bunkhouse,” a crammed office space with metal desks side-by-side, where faculty and fellows were treated non-discriminately and hours were spent in “OFAT” (obligatory fooling around time) to test new and creative hypotheses and experimental ideas. Bruce remembers that Greg would easily transition from performing experiments at his patch clamp rig to leading the residents during clinical rounds. “Greg was always friendly and engaged, and he never appeared stressed” recalls Bruce, “In all my years, he was truly the best example of a triple threat: clinician, researcher, and educator.” The time in San Francisco was an exciting and busy one for both Greg and Linda, especially with the arrival of their two sons, Guy and Thomas.

In 1989, Greg returned to Duke as an Associate Professor of Medicine and joined the GI Division, which was headed by Dr. Ian Taylor at the time. He quickly went to work building his patch clamp rigs, designing electrophysiological experiments, and firmly establishing his research program. He was awarded his first National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 award at this time, “Mechanisms of Hepatocyte Electrolyte Transport,” a grant he was to renew for more than two decades. This was followed in a few years with his second R01 award, “Regulation of Secretion by Bile Duct Epithelial Cells,” a grant he would also hold, through multiple renewals, for the next 20 years. During his time at Duke he also continued to demonstrate his love for teaching and mentoring fellows, serving as Fellowship Director for several years.

In 1996, he was promoted to full Professor and, the same year, accepted a job at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC) as Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. At UCHSC, Greg held the Waterman Chair in Liver Research and continued to develop a strong liver research program. His own research endeavors thrived at UCHSC and his laboratory became an exceptional training ground for many fellows. His laboratory, located at the top of the old basic research building on Colorado Avenue, had incredible views of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains are a powerful draw, and it was not unusual for Greg to take fellows and trainees on spontaneous outdoor trips, most often involving fly-fishing. It is also not surprising then that these two competing interests (research studies and outdoor activities) would occasionally intersect with untoward consequences. One month after his initial arrival in Colorado, Greg sustained a fractured clavicle and a concussion due to a mountain biking accident. In his characteristic self-deprecating manner, Greg laughed off the incident, suggesting that his mountain biking ambitions perhaps were greater than his skills at the time. Despite these injuries he managed to work through a long Memorial Day weekend helping a junior fellow with one of their first research grants, sitting at his computer with one arm bandaged and the other in a sling. In retrospect, he laughs that this grant, written after a concussion, may have been one of his better ones. In fact, this is clearly not the case, as a few years later Greg would receive an NIH Merit award for his research grant renewal, awarded to less than 5% of NIH-funded investigators. He likes to quote, “there is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.” Greg is truly a masterful writer with great command of the English language (especially for a boy from Hickory) and he has served as Associate Editor of Hepatology as well as many other editorial positions.

In 2003, Greg moved to Dallas, Texas to become the new Chairman in the Department of Internal Medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School as the Donald W. Seldin Distinguished Chair in Internal Medicine. This represented the first non-UT Southwestern physician to have the post in more than 50 years. During his time as Chairman of the department, he successfully built many new clinical programs. In 2009, Greg became the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost and Dean of UT Southwestern Medical School, a position he continues to hold. In his role as Dean, he has continued to build many strong programs at UT Southwestern Medical School, revise the medical school curriculum, recruit world-class clinicians and researchers, establish a children's research institute, and to build a new world-class UT Southwestern Hospital.

Over the years, Dr. Fitz's own research has been productive and innovative. He was one of the first researchers to apply advanced patch clamp techniques and biophysical approaches to the direct study of liver epithelium. His research has focused on the cellular mechanisms responsible for hepatocyte transport, cell volume regulation, and cholangiocyte secretion and bile formation. He has published over 100 original, peer-reviewed articles and over 50 chapters, reviews, and editorials. His work has been recognized with several prestigious awards and he has been a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation since 1994. He has also served on research policy committees for both the AASLD and the AGA, served as the chairman of the research committee (AGA), and as the president of the Gastroenterology Research Group (GRG).

Despite his significant roles in administration, he still takes time to practice clinical hepatology and serves as a role model and mentor to the house staff. He continues to round on the inpatient general internal medicine and hepatology services. He is an exemplary teacher and has received significant teaching awards from every institution that he has attended. At UCSF, he received the Henry J. Kaiser Award, while at Duke he received the Eugene Stead Award, both for excellence in teaching. He has also been instrumental in bringing new and novel teaching methods and curricula to both the University of Colorado and UT Southwestern. He places an emphasis on providing a foundation for lifelong learning, because as Greg states, “virtually nothing that I learned in medical school and residency did I spend my life doing. At the time, liver transplantation didn't exist, Hepatitis C had not been cloned, there were no treatments for molecular or genetic diseases.” “Today,” states Greg, “a trainee in hepatology really needs to be a student for life.”

Greg has long been an active member of the AASLD and has served the organization in many different roles. He has been a member of the Abstract Selection Committee, serving on the transport in the Biliary Physiology section, including several years as Chair. Additionally, he has been an active member of the Membership Task Force and the Strategic Planning Committees. He organized and directed several educational meetings including the single-topic conference “Disorders in Membrane Transport” and served as Co-Chair of the national postgraduate course in 2002 and again last year in 2012. He has served as Councilor on the governing board since 2009 and looks forward to his tenure as President in 2013.

Throughout his career Greg has maintained his love of the outdoors. He continues to participate in hiking, biking, and especially fly-fishing. “Match the hatch” is a common phrase heard during a Fitz river outing and, after talking with Greg long enough, you will soon realize that nothing grows faster than a fish from the time it bites until the time it gets away. Greg has fished rivers in most parts of the United States, Canada, and many parts of the world; and few things in life are much better than enjoying one of his fresh catches on his backyard grill. This highlights another of his hobbies, cooking. He and Linda have hosted wonderful and delicious dinner parties for friends, faculty members, and house staff over the years. Although a scientist, Greg approaches cooking more like an abstract painter approaches a canvas. A bit unconventional, and you might not know what you're going to get, but the final product is always spectacular. Whether this will characterize his style as AASLD president is yet to be determined, but he has already built on the successes and innovative ideas of previous presidents of the organization. Always active and never idle, Greg is “always involved in something” as Linda would say. This past year he took up amateur astronomy. We will see where that leads.