The pressures on young researchers can be immense, from the need to publish and compete for limited grant money to the tedium and uncertainty that underpin scientific discovery.
As a frequent mentor, epidemiologist Allen Wilcox helps these early-career researchers navigate all of these issues. But, mostly, he says, he tries to keep them grounded in the pure joy of discovery.
“I want them to have that spark of enthusiasm and curiosity that will let them overcome their preconceived ideas and be open to discovering something new,” he says. “What could be better than that?”
Wilcox is a fertility researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences here, the only one of 27 groups that form the National Institutes of Health located outside of Washington, D.C.
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He’s also well known for his role as a mentor to young researchers in his field, including graduate students he teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill and other universities, post-doctorate researchers and junior colleagues.
Earlier this month, he was named national Mentor of the Year by the Society for Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiologic Research.
Anne Marie Jukic, who nominated him for the award, says Wilcox was helpful in every aspect of her career – from helping her navigate tricky research issues to offering her lead roles on several projects. He also urged her to take small steps, such as personally calling survey respondents during a large study, that proved important.
And his door is always open to those seeking advice or counsel, says Jukic, who has worked at the institute in several positions and will soon start a new job at Yale University.
“He lets me end conversations, assuring that my questions have been answered,” says Jukic. “Dr. Wilcox strikes a fine balance between encouraging independence and providing guidance.”
Wilcox grew up near Detroit, and earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Michigan. He knew he wanted to study medicine, but it took him years to figure out which direction to take.
He considered going into practice as a pediatrician, or possibly teaching at a university. He moved to North Carolina to earn a master’s of public health at UNC-CH and eventually a Ph.D. in epidemiology.
Along the way, he found his passion in studying a niche health topic that at the time hadn’t gotten a lot of attention: fertility.
“I went to medical school not really knowing what I wanted to do, and I finished medical school still not really knowing,” he says. “I had that ‘aha’ moment that this is what I wanted to study. I can’t tell you how that happened.”
He took a one-year position with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences when the branch was new, with only a handful of researchers, though now it is home to more than 1,000 employees.
Wilcox was tasked with starting a research program in reproduction, and he has continued in that work for more than 35 years.
One of his first studies, which showed that about a fourth of human pregnancies are lost before they are even detected, made the cover of Newsweek.
For that first study, he recruited Triangle women who were interested in conceiving, and asked them to take daily urine samples and complete detailed questionnaires. He himself took daily samples so that he’d understand what he was asking them to do.
His team also discovered wide misunderstanding of ovulation patterns that affected fertility, developed a widely used measure for fertility, and isolated behaviors, such as smoking, that make women less fertile.
Lately, another study he’s involved in will use extensive data on new mothers in Europe to identify risk factors – and ideally, a cause – for cerebral palsy
Mentor and activist
The institute, which is focused on studying the impact of the environment on human health and houses the National Toxicology Program, provided an ideal place for Wilcox’s research.
Yet by staying there, he missed out on the teaching role he would have had in a university job. So he sought opportunities to share his knowledge and perspective with younger colleagues.
He has faculty appointments at UNC-CH, Harvard University and the University of Bergen in Norway, and frequently serves on dissertation committees for students in his field.
One Ph.D. candidate, from Norway, wrote a note to Wilcox in a dissertation he just received last week: “I hope you continue to create enthusiasm among your research colleagues.”
“I always thought the university would be my home,” Wilcox says. “It’s my natural habitat. But here I have the best of both worlds.”
Underlying his work as a mentor is the fact that forging a career is much more difficult today than it was when he earned his Ph.D. in 1979. Grant money has dwindled in recent years, as competition has grown ever more intense.
These days, he says, only a small percentage of grant proposals are successful, and losing funding can mean losing a research job.
“It’s not an easy environment to do research, but unless you have a passion for doing it, it’s not even worth trying,” he says.
Many young researchers find themselves focusing heavily on markers of prestige, such as publication in top journals, over the bigger picture.
“Part of my mentoring is reminding them that it’s not about which journal they’re published in – it’s the quality of the work they do,” he says. “Somehow, you have to have your own internal bearings.”
Of course, he’s also willing to help those seeking publication. For 14 years, Wilcox was editor of the journal Epidemiology, and he frequently volunteered to hold sessions with young researchers on writing, submitting and editing papers.
He also works closely with young researchers at the institute, and has written a textbook, “Fertility and Pregnancy,” that he uses in a one-week course that he’s taught throughout the Unites States, as well as in Europe and China.
“It’s another opportunity to spend time with young people and teach them what I know about this area and at the same time try to kindle that spark,” he says.
Wilcox isn’t all work. He’s an avid community activist who has long advocated for his Trinity Park neighborhood. He helped found Durham Central Park, and is working as a volunteer on revitalizing downtown areas.
He’s also a pianist who plays at his church most Sundays.
“One of the things I love about living here is it’s a place where you can make a difference,” he says. “In a big city there’s a limit to what you can really do.”
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Born: September 1946, Michigan
Career: Senior investigator, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Awards: Mentor of the Year, Society for Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiologic Research, 2015
Education: B.A. and M.D., University of Michigan; M.P.H. and Ph.D., UNC-Chapel Hill
Family: Wife Claire; children Lauren and Joseph; two grandchildren
Notable: Wilcox’s son is an inventor who was recently on the show “Shark Tank,” where he won funding for a three-wheeled electric motor scooter.