Stephen K. Wikel spent the better part of 40 years teaching medical and graduate students, performing administrative duties and serving as a laboratory researcher before taking over as senior associate dean for scholarship and chair of the Department of Medical Sciences at Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine.
“I thought, at the end of my career, what we’re doing here with the School of Medicine is going to touch millions of lives long after I am gone,” Wikel said of the decision to hang up his lab coat. “This is, I think, the most important legacy that I could leave behind. The science has been great, but what we’re doing here by building the medical school is going to have a tremendous impact on people’s lives – not just the people we train, but the people they treat.”
Wikel, 68, arrived at Quinnipiac in March 2011. Hiring faculty was his first priority. “We had 967 applications for the 22 basic science positions, which is really quite remarkable,” Wikel recalled.
Wikel and a panel of administrators and faculty did video interviews with candidates and the best were brought to the campus to meet with faculty and to lecture in a manner similar to what they would do with medical students before physician assistant students, who provided input.
“I think we’ve got a really good core faculty,” Wikel said. “Truly, the success of the school hinges on what occurs on a day-to-day basis in the classroom or in the clinic. The people that we have are superb.”
Wikel was also responsible early on in the development of the school as far as “putting together the hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week parts of the basic science curriculum” as well as setting up clinical faculty academic appointments and developing summer research opportunities for the medical students.
The School of Medicine has selected St. Vincent’s Medical Center of Bridgeport as its principal clinical partner. Earlier this month, the medical center pledged $1 million to establish the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Endowed Chair in Medical Sciences, which will be held by Wikel. Quinnipiac will match St. Vincent’s gift, creating a $2 million fund in perpetuity. In addition, St. Vincent’s pledged $50,000 to create the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Primary Care Scholarship.
“I am honored to be the first holder of The St. Vincent’s Medical Center Endowed Chair in Medical Sciences, which attests to the commitment of our primary clinical partner to the School of Medicine,” Wikel said. “This gift will be used to further innovative educational initiatives, seminars and student-focused basic, transitional and clinical research, and other activities to enrich the student experience.”
Wikel certainly knows all about research. He most recently served as a professor of pathology and as a senior scientist in the Center for Tropical Diseases, Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He is an expert in the area of arthropod vectors and vector-borne illness and he is responsible for ground-breaking research of tick saliva and how ticks modulate host defenses.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the years with ticks including the vector of Lyme disease,” he said. “We were the first to show that blood-feeding ticks actually modulate the defenses of the animal they’re feeding on, whether it’s you or me or a steer or a mouse.”
Wikel’s research found that ticks are able to turn off a series of the host’s defenses through proteins in their saliva during the blood feed.
“Tick saliva is a potent pharmacy of things that will down regulate or divert immune defenses such as blood clotting, inflammation and pain,” Wikel said. “What a lot of people found over time was that there are probably a wealth of drugs that could be mined from this stuff. Ultimately, we hope it leads to developing a vaccine.”
Wikel has been asked to present his findings at the prestigious Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology in 2015. Otherwise, he is leaving the research up to others.
“I’ve passed the baton,” he said, reiterating that the School of Medicine is his top priority. “We’re upping the game here at Quinnipiac. This is the most important thing I could do. The science has been fun, but this is a really nice way to end one’s career.”