Class of 2020
Alexis del Vecchio
Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Rick Hodinka, a clinical microbiologist by training and a virologist by trade and one of USCSOM Greenville’s newest faculty. His impressive clinical experience and prolific publication list speak for themselves, and the M2’s have already been lucky enough to see his passion for teaching at work in our Biomedical Principles of Disease module (Drugs and Bugs for short). Read on to find out more about what helped bring him down to Greenville, SC from the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (other than obvious climate advantages), his southpaw past, and why he’s more famous than the Dos Equis guy with the class of 2017.
What brought you down south to Greenville from CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania) and the University of Pennsylvania?
My oldest son Ryan was at Furman where he majored in political science and played baseball, and the middle boy Tyler went to Wofford as a biology major so for 8 years we got to really see and know the Greenville-Spartanburg area. Before the job at USCSOMG even was posted, both my wife and I had decided that Greenville was where we were going to retire; it just happened a little sooner than we expected when I saw the open position. I had run a diagnostic laboratory and been in a hospital setting for 26 years so I was set in my career and there wasn’t a whole lot left to prove. I felt well established and comfortable in my position and the open faculty position at USCSOMG seemed like a really nice challenge and a great “second career”.
I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed teaching and so this was an opportunity to teach even more than in the past, and for this to be my primary job. At CHOP and Penn, teaching was always part of my work but often was secondary to what I did in my clinical service responsibilities on a daily basis. I constantly had students, residents, and fellows coming into the laboratory to ask questions and for short educational sessions and teaching was always on the fly as you moved through each day. You’ll see this when you get on the floors in the hospital and have an even more demanding schedule. Your continued education will be on the move as you work through your patients, so buy a comfortable pair of shoes. Even my teaching in the microbiology-related courses in the Penn medical school was essentially tightly woven into an otherwise packed schedule of other academic- and service-related activities.
Also, Penn is the first medical school in the nation and it is well established and has always had a more traditional approach to the delivery of medical education so one thing that really appeals to me here at USCSOMG is the opportunity to do things quite differently, to teach a bit outside the box, if you will, using an integrated curriculum and student-centered approach to learning.
What got you into virology?
Serendipity. I always tell people, “As an undergraduate, I went to college to play baseball and got an education instead.” I didn’t quite have a good enough curveball or fastball to advance and, luckily for me, my path to success took a different turn.”
I did my Master’s degree in microbiology at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT and my Ph.D. in microbiology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I was trained as a tried and true basic scientist in the area of bacteriology. This was followed by a couple of postdoctoral fellowships at UNC-Chapel Hill and a keen desire to get into the field of medical microbiology. In the U.S., there are ~15 academic programs that allow Ph.D.’s like myself to go into hospital-based fellowships to become clinical microbiologists, so I trained right alongside pathologists in the field of laboratory medicine to become a director of a diagnostic laboratory centered on patient care.
To make a long story short, I think I was halfway through my two-year clinical fellowship when the director of the diagnostic microbiology laboratory came to me with an interesting proposal. He explained that the director of the clinical virology laboratory had just left and said “I have a great opportunity for you”. My mentor was kind of guy that when he said ‘I have a great opportunity for you’ it meant he wanted you to do this- and, besides, he was a big guy, 6’5-6’6 with a bellowing voice and so I said “okay, that sounds like a good idea to me.” So I took over the supervision of the virology laboratory and absolutely loved it. The rest is history as they say.
I applied for an open position as a virology lab director in the Department of Pathology & Lab Medicine at CHOP and as a faculty member at Penn right out of my fellowship. That was my first and only job that I’ve ever had until this one. I started at CHOP in 1988 and the expectation of hospital and laboratory administration was to make the virology lab state-of-the-art and well known. And as a naïve young fellow I thought, “sure I can do that” which ended up to be true but I initially had no idea what I was going to do to get there. Like anything else, you learn day to day and that’s exactly what I did. It was trial by fire. It took years of hard work and a lot of support from CHOP and Penn, but it happened and it was an unbelievably fun ride. And that’s pretty much the story.
On what he has enjoyed most about his work:
When I arrived at CHOP many years ago, the field of diagnostic virology was considered to be somewhat of a black box. Technology at the time was painfully slow, not very sensitive, and extremely cumbersome and had a minimal impact on the care and management of patients with viral diseases. The virology laboratory was looked at by clinicians as a place where specimens were sent never to be seen or heard from again. The average time to detect viruses in the late 80s and early 90s was counted in many days to many weeks so you can see that our contribution toward establishing a diagnosis of a patient’s infectious disease was woefully inadequate. We clearly needed better and faster methods, so I set out to accomplish this in my laboratory and to change how diagnostic virology, as a whole, was being done. Over the years, we had a lot of success building assays that were fast, very effective, and very accurate and we changed the whole dynamic of diagnostic virology. At the end of the day, helping physicians and other healthcare providers diagnose disease in sick children and adults was totally satisfying and most enjoyable.
So I guess my claim to fame in virology, if you will (I don’t like to even say that), is that I’ve had a significant impact on how patients are managed when they have viral diseases. I, along with other faculty and investigators nationwide and throughout the world have worked to change the entire field of clinical virology and how people look at the field, so that was really a lot of fun for me. I got to see monoclonal antibodies and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) discovered and developed into diagnostic tools, and I got to apply these reagents and methods to make my own rapid tests and to use them in a clinical setting.
It’s a night and day difference in the virology laboratory at CHOP between now and the past when I first started. The technology and automation is absolutely unbelievable, so that’s been fun for me because I always felt like the physicians at CHOP fully appreciated our efforts.
I wasn’t there to make money, my whole reason for being there was to help patients and help physicians manage their patients in the best way that I could as a laboratorian and that was a blast for me, particularly working with kids to help identity and treat the cause of their illnesses.
What are your favorite hobbies/downtime activities?
I’m an outside type of person, so I’m constantly out and about. I have an active Jack Russell as you guys know so I walk all over Greenville. I like kayaking and fishing and climbing and things like that. Sports are a big thing for me, so I still enjoy throwing the baseball around from time to time and I have always like playing basketball, although I am a bit height-challenged.
Tell us some about your baseball career.
Oh it wasn’t too illustrious. I had a nice high school career and was good enough to play in college and travel around all over the place in some great summer leagues for a while. I was a left-handed pitcher with an average fast ball and a pretty nice curve ball. If you know baseball, that translates into a “junk-ball” pitcher who needs to keep the ball out of the center of the plate. I ended up going to Marietta College (a small school in Ohio) as an undergraduate, but it was a DIII powerhouse in baseball and still really is today. I spent a couple years throwing before I blew out my arm. I popped my elbow before Tommy John had his Tommy John surgery…so my career ended and then I became a great 12 foot arc softball pitcher (laughs).
Do you have a favorite virus/bacteria or parasite?
There’s so many of them that I like (laughs)… The two groups that I appreciated the most being in a children’s hospital are the respiratory viruses and GI viruses, particularly the respiratory viruses. They can cause so much disease in an otherwise immunologically naïve population of young children.
Also, there’s a tiny virus, Parvovirus B19, that I have always found to be fascinating from a virologic standpoint since it’s one of the few viruses that infects red blood cells. It also causes a variety of different diseases in different human hosts and we are learning new things about it on a regular basis. For instance, for years, we thought that it only caused acute illness in infected people and then was cleared from the body, but now we know that it seems to be able to persistently infect immunocompromised hosts and can come out of hiding with significant consequences.
As a virologist, I haven’t met a virus that I haven’t really liked; I think they’re all pretty cool. Think about it—A bunch of proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids housed in a tiny package, but they can deliver a big punch.
You’re famous with the class of 2017 for your Friday restaurant gift card drawings (during the drugs and bugs module)…What’s your favorite restaurant in Greenville?
I am so happy that the students like the gift card drawings. It’s just my way of showing appreciation and respect for all of you as you work hard to take in everything that is being taught. It is truly my pleasure and something other classes after you should look forward to as well!!
There’s a sushi place downtown called Miso’s that we like, it has a nice outdoor atmosphere and the dog can join my wife and I. Tupelo Honey is truly my wife’s favorite. We like just about any kind of food; we haven’t found many places we haven’t enjoyed in Greenville. We’re heading downtown to try Smoke on the Water for the first time this weekend.
Have you ever had a nickname given by students? How do you feel about “The most interesting man in microbiology” (The Class of 2017’s unofficial moniker for you)?
(lots of laughs), No, I’ve never had a nickname given to me by students, at least one that I know about…. but you know I like that actually. It’s pretty neat. That’s absolutely fine with me. If you find me interesting, hopefully all of you will feel the same about microbiology as you move forward in your careers.
What advice, if anything, do you have for medical students?
Outside of the cliché, study hard?
I think for you guys what’s really exciting about being a medical student is that someday you’ll be caring for patients and somewhere down the line you just need to find your discipline and your niche, find what satisfies you and drives your passion and compassion. Just like I found my niche in laboratory medicine and virology within the bigger field of microbiology, your field is even larger and you have so many choices so the advice would be to go with your heart, find what you love. You want to make certain that you’re in an area that satisfies you as well as the patients you’ll serve. That’s nothing new, you’ve probably heard that from a million people already, but I think it’s sound advice.
Another stellar faculty member here at USCSOM Greenville. M1’s and future students, you have a lot to look forward to!
I grew up in the small Pee Dee town of Marion, South Carolina, before heading up to Durham, North Carolina, for an undergraduate education (and a few basketball games) at Duke University. After a year working in community health at Duke, I was primed to begin the study of medicine. USC School of Medicine Greenville’s attention to communities and commitment to teamwork brought me back to South Carolina (the amazing facilities didn’t hurt either). I’m interested in primary care and thinking about how physicians’ moral frameworks affect their practice of medicine. Most of all, I’m excited to be part of this new school and look forward to reflecting together with my classmates as we make our way through these formative years.
Copyright 2014 USC School of Medicine Greenville