Dr. Judith James and Austin Lopez in a medical research laboratory
Features Spring 2024

Enjoy the Journey

The story of an OBU alumna who is changing medicine and the OBU junior who intends to advance it further!

Raised on a northern Oklahoma wheat and cattle farm near Pond Creek, Dr. Judith James suffered from asthma.

Even at four years old James saw the visit to a local pediatrician as an excellent opportunity to reel off numerous questions.

She recalls the doctor saying, “that if I wanted to become a nurse, he would hire me.”

The focused preschooler politely flipped the conversation.

“I told him that I would become a doctor and hire him,” she said.

The Path to Chief Medical Officer

James, an Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation Fleming Scholar in 1988, graduated from OBU summa cum laude with honors in 1989 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. She then became the first M.D./Ph.D. dual degree program graduate from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Today, she serves as the Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of OMRF and chairs its Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program. James, a board-certified rheumatologist, has made pioneering contributions to understanding how autoimmune diseases start and progress.

In November 2023, she was inducted into the prestigious Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

So, given the opportunity, what would she go back and tell herself? Or rather, how would she shape her own future with advice?

OBU junior Austin Lopez, a biochemistry major and a 2023 Fleming Scholar, can answer that.

“My first-time meeting Dr. James was actually when my nephew was born at OU Children’s Hospital,” Lopez said. “Dr. James and my dad were close friends at OBU, as they were both science majors.”

James stopped by to say hello and gave Lopez and her father, Carl Lopez, a 1990 OBU physics graduate, a tour of OMRF, located across the street from Children’s Hospital.

“I remember her telling me then that the path I wanted was daunting, but to take things one day at a time,” Lopez said. “This advice was simple but honestly has been a mantra for me for the past few years.”

As a sophomore, Lopez took organic chemistry, university physics and advanced physiology.

“That was by far the most difficult academic semester of my life,” she said. “The only way I made it through was by taking one day at a time and leaning on my community. Sophomore year was the season of my life where I can see the most growth, and I know that looking up to people like Dr. James gave me the motivation to push through the hard times.”

Those words shared during that impromptu tour, were future shaping.

Advice for Aspiring Students

While her medical research has had an impact on the world, James has never lost sight of the individuals.

When asked what additional advice she would give to Lopez and other students with similar aspirations, James said, “Take time to enjoy the journey,” James said. “Being goal-oriented is great and leads to wonderful productivity. However, taking time to enjoy the steps along the way is critical to avoiding burnout. Stay in touch with your community. Science can be very isolating. Find ways to connect with and to stay connected with uplifting family and friends.”

James encourages Lopez not to fear failure because it isn’t bad, “it’s just a hypothesis that you proved wrong. Adjust and try again.”

Conversely, while it’s important to understand how to handle the challenges, James also wants Lopez to enjoy the wins.

“Celebrate the successes,” she said. “Pause and appreciate the good things. Science is a lot of research. We often search and search again. It’s easy to ignore the good things because we are too busy doing the work.”

James could do this all day long – sharing ways to help others. She’s done it for a lifetime. So, what should the “you of Bison Hill days,” or rather Lopez, keep in mind going forward?

James encourages consideration of the M.D./Ph.D. dual degree program.

“Melding the clinical and science training is great for career development – and you get paid to go to school,” she said. “Also, study hard and stay up on your grades, but make time for some spontaneous fun with your friends and colleagues.”

At that point James drops a hint, “Apply to schools broadly and critically review the offers or call an individual to have this discussion.”

It wouldn’t take too many guesses as to whom James is suggesting Lopez might call for advice.

A Valuable Internship

Like James, Lopez is always looking to advance her medical interests. So, like James, she pursued and was chosen as a Fleming Scholar for summer 2023. The Fleming program is named for Sir Alexander Fleming, the British scientist who discovered penicillin and, in 1949, came to Oklahoma City to dedicate OMRF’s first building.

While interning at OMRF, Lopez infected cartilage cells with a virus to determine whether the virus might be therapeutic for osteoarthritis.

“The genes that are being transplanted through those cells are able to turn an older cell into a young, stem-like cell,” she said. “After growing and infecting the cartilage cells, I extracted RNA and analyzed it to see whether the virus transplanted the genes into the cells.”

The Tulsa Union High School graduate and now OBU upperclassman was among 16 students from Oklahoma who formed the 67th class of Fleming Scholars at OMRF. Lopez’ OMRF mentor was Matlock Jeffries, M.D., a board-certified rheumatologist and lead researcher on a clinical study aimed at identifying biological signs that could help predict the severity of osteoarthritis.

“Austin is quite conscientious and smart, and she did a great job on the final presentation summarizing her internship project,” Jeffries said.

So, OMRF brought her back as a research assistant for the fall 2023 semester.

“I would like to continue being involved in research in medical school, residency and my career,” Lopez said. “I am not sure the specialty I would like to go into, but I have always loved working with kids. I am heavily considering rheumatology and obstetrics and gynecology.”

Lopez is very thankful for the knowledge and experience she has gained on Bison Hill.

“The science department and community have grown me as a person tremendously,” she said. “The friends I have made here are friends I know I’ll have for life.”

She has praise for all her science professors. For example, Lopez said of Dr. Contessa Edgar, chair of the Division of Science and associate professor of biology, “Dr. Edgar has been a mentor and a role model for me. She has helped me grow so much as a student and person. She helped me apply for my research programs and worked at OMRF as a post-doc before coming to OBU, so having someone who could help me make connections at OMRF has really helped me.”

From Internship to Landmark Career

James had just finished her junior year at OBU when she went to OMRF as a Fleming Scholar. She’d told the selection committee she wanted to do research on asthma, which not only afflicted her but also many members of her family. She was assigned to the laboratory of Dr. John Harley, a physician-researcher who was an allergist and rheumatologist.

Harley assigned James a pair of projects to study different aspects of lupus, an autoimmune disease.

James thought her research on lupus would represent a brief scientific detour.

“I figured I’d learn some auto-immunity, then apply it to asthma,” she said.

But as she delved into the depths of the disease, investigating the molecular targets and the immune cells that mistakenly attack them, the work struck a chord with her.

“I really liked the detective work,” she said. “I enjoyed trying to figure out something that no one had figured out before.”

James returned to OBU for her senior year but kept working with Harley in OMRF’s labs. The OU Health Sciences Center launched an M.D./Ph.D. program, and on the strength of her undergraduate career and work in Harley’s lab, James was one of two students accepted into the inaugural class. This enabled her to pursue a medical degree as well as a doctorate in microbiology and immunology simultaneously.

That momentum only continues to build in her landmark career. How does James hope she has shaped the future?

“Through our clinical and translational research, I hope we have and are changing the future of autoimmune diseases,” James said. “We are now finishing the first in the world lupus prevention study, and we are changing the future by forwarding prevention for these complicated diseases that remain a top 10 medical cause of death in young women between ages 15 and 45. I also hope I am changing the future by mentoring junior trainees to help them launch their own independent research or medical careers.”

Her former trainees have gone on to faculty jobs at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of California San Francisco and others.

“Finally, I hope I am shaping the future through collaboration as I lead the Oklahoma Shared Clinical and Translational Resources,” she said. “It’s the largest National Institutes of Health grant in Oklahoma history that involves 29 Oklahoma entities, and we are focused on improving the health of all Oklahomans.”

Commitment, Impact and Inspiration

The pediatrician likely didn’t see such a monumental impact rising from within the four year old with asthma. However, it hasn’t surprised James – it’s been her goal. And it certainly doesn’t shock Lopez.

“I am so honored to know Dr. James,” Lopez said. “She has been such an inspiration to me. She is one of the hardest-working people I know, and despite being one of the most prestigious scientists in the United States, she continues to go above and beyond for others. Her commitment to providing opportunities to women and underrepresented communities in science is something I am also very passionate about. She truly inspires me. I hope someday I can make a percentage of the contribution she has made to the biomedical sciences field.”

Dr. Judith James: Shaping the Future in Medicine

  • Internationally recognized rheumatologist, specializing in lupus and related conditions
  • First graduate of OUHSC’s M.D./Ph.D. program, pioneering medical education
  • Published 330-plus articles, led NIH-funded projects, and explored targeted therapies
  • As associate vice provost at OUHSC, led National Institutes of Health initiatives for improved health outcomes
  • Has mentored 150-plus students, emphasizing diversity and fostering future medical professionals
  • Recipient of prestigious awards/honors, including induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Presidential Early Career Award, Evelyn V. Hess Award, American College of Rheumatology’s Distinguished Basic/Translational Investigator Award
  • In 2022, became the first Oklahoma woman elected to the National Academy of Medicine