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Milking Tarantulas and Chasing a Dream

November 30, 2004

Judith James-Wood, '89, isn't used to doing things the easy way. She hasn't let a few road blocks prevent her from achieving her childhood dream of becoming a physician. Not only has Judith attained those childhood goals, but perhaps she has exceeded them. Today, she is a wife, mother, physician, researcher and a medical school professor. 

Judith, anative of Pond Creek, Oklahoma, population 982, graduated from Pond Creek-Hunter High School with 22 other students. She remembers pleading with her high school science teacher to create a physiology and anatomy class. While he agreed to do it, he also said that she must convince several of her classmates to take the class with her. She did.

"I was extremely blessed to be raised by a caring extended family in a close-knit, supportive community," says Judith. "From dedicated teachers to community leaders to church members and the families of my classmates, everyone was supportive of my somewhat unconventional goals and dreams. Moving to a town where it never really got dark, lacking advanced-level prerequisites for OBU's challenging pre-med curriculumand placing, attimes, unreasonable demands on myself & these were all were hurdles which had to be faced. But because of the one-on-one attention I received at OBU, I was able to find a network-with people such as Debbie Blue, Dick Canham, Albert Chen and my classmates who are now lifetime friends- to get over those hurdles." 

As a student, she was faced with two failed applications for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation Sir Alexander Fleming scholar. "I was turned down the first two times because I lacked research experience, but Jim Hurley wouldn't let me give up," she says. After finding an Oklahoma State University researcher who allowed her to help with an investigation into possible health benefits of tarantulatoxin, she became an expert at milking tarantulas, and she highlighted the experience on her next Fleming application. It was enough to persuade the selection committee, and it was the beginning of her career as a biomedical researcher.

Judith was named to the Lou Kerr Chair for Biomedical Research in 2004, and spends much of her time in her lab, where she focuses on understanding systemic rheumatic diseases such as systemic lupusery thematosis(SLE),scleroderma and Wegener's granulomatosis. "Although diverse in their clinical symptomology, these diseases share a common theme: the nearly universal presence of high concentrations of auto anti bodies," she says.

Why did she choose to study auto immune diseases? "Asthma runs rampant in my family, and I wanted to understand and hopefully cure it. There was no one at the Health Sciences Center doing asthma research, but it was thought to have some auto immune properties, so I began looking into it from that aspect. That first summer, I met a patient in ICU. She was the mother of two young children, the same age as I was, and her body was ravaged with lupus. She ended up dying in ICU. I just couldn't understand why a body that was healthy for decades and decades would have an immune system that would just turn. How could there be people with the same disease and some would have mild symptoms and others would die from it?" 

Her interest was peaked, and she has found success. She and a research colleague, Dr. John Harley, have discovered a significant association between exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus and the onset of lupus, and their findings have been considered a key step in making genetic discoveries in immune disease research. This discovery has led to three patents. "We are essentially using lupus as the prototype to attack other auto immune diseases, including insulin dependent diabetes and multiple sclerosis," she says. "Our hope is that our findings will provide key developments of better diagnostic tools and treatments for the future."

Judith was recognized for her work in 2000 when she was awarded the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award - prestigious because the National Institutes of Health nominate only their top scientists. Judith is the only Oklahoma scientist and the only rheumatologist to ever win this award. In addition to her work in research, Judith is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and she sees patients as a board certified rheumatologist. "I have always been very goal - oriented. I always knew my vision - to be a physician. Because of my asthma, I was sick a lot. Doctors help sick people, and that is what I wanted to do. It's easy to work really hard if you know what your visionis," she says.

In addition to doing research, teaching medical students and seeing patients, Judith is wife to Glen, a teacher and football coach in Edmond, and mother to Rebecca, their 5-year-old daughter.