Jonathan Parr, MD, MPH, remembers asking two friends within UNC’s Division of Infectious Diseases who they felt would be a good mentor should he be accepted to UNC’s Infectious Diseases Fellowship Training Program. One of the physician-scientists both friends immediately recommended was Jonathan Juliano, MD.
“After my first meeting with Jon at the beginning of my fellowship, it was clear their recommendation was spot on,” says Parr, who is now in his second year of fellowship. “Jon’s mentoring approach merges the perfect amount of personal development and practicality. His style has several distinctive attributes that make him a unique leader – energy, efficiency and generosity.”
This effective mentoring style prompted Parr and his colleagues to nominate Juliano for UNC’s Distinguished Teaching Award for Post-Baccalaureate Instruction. Established in 1995, the prestigious award recognizes the important role post-baccalaureate instruction plays in defining a student’s career. Only four faculty from around UNC’s campus are selected annually. Juliano is the only recipient from the School of Medicine this year, and only the third faculty member from the Division of Infectious Diseases to receive the honor since the award’s inception. When he discovered he had been nominated and selected, Juliano was touched and humbled.
“I was really shocked because I am a junior faculty member,” Juliano says. “Most of the teaching I do is not in a traditional classroom, but on the ward in the hospital or in the lab mentoring residents, graduate students and post-docs. It says a lot about UNC that it honors those involved in the personal mentoring post-baccaulaureate students need to succeed.”
Carving Out a Career in Parasitology
Becoming a doctor was not initially on Juliano’s radar.
“My father was a biomedical researcher so I always envisioned a career in a lab.” he says. “I found infectious diseases through my freshman microbiology class at the University of Toronto. I knew after that class I wanted an infectious disease-related career. At this point, my father’s guidance and support was really my first mentoring experience. I owe him a lot for where I ended up in my career. During college, I began working in labs, but realized I liked people a lot and that maybe public health was where I should focus. Applying to medical school was a last minute decision and I took my MCATs in the middle of my final exams of my last year of university.”
Juliano took a year away from academics after graduating from the University of Toronto to travel. He then came to UNC to earn a master’s degree in public health. While here, he met Mark Sobsey, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering. Sobsey was his first academic mentor, teaching him how to think rigorously about science and leading him to the world of parasitology. He applied to medical school at UNC where he met Fred Sparling, MD, former Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases. Juliano credits Sparling as having a tremendous impact on his views of what it meant to be an academic physician and mentor.
“I approached Fred my first year of medical school. And during my second year, he ran a seminar called Advanced Topics in Infectious Diseases. He asked me to help him select 8 students to be in the class. He had us all pick journal articles to review and we learned so much,” Juliano says. “Fred really influenced my approach and philosophy of teaching.”
“That seminar was offered only occasionally, depending on whether I had enough motivated and curious students who were willing to do the work for no credit,” Sparling says. “Jon stood out from the start. He was very bright, always positive, and eager to learn. He was a leader. It has been a great pleasure to watch him succeed as a scientist and mentor. He does everything well, and we are so fortunate to have him here.”
Upon graduating from medical school, Juliano knew he wanted to find a residency with a diverse population. His parents had been in the Peace Corps and as a teenager he had accompanied them on a 25th Peace Corps anniversary trip to China, Hong Kong and the Philippines. He credits this trip as his first exposure to global issues. During his gap year between college and coming to UNC for his master’s degree, he spent time in Kathmandu, Nepal. To continue this global health journey, he headed to the University of Minnesota for his residency home to tens of thousands of immigrants.
“There is a large Somali and Hmong population in the neighborhood of Frogtown between Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Juliano says. “Most of my patients were immigrants and I was treating people with typhoid and malaria.”
He returned to UNC to complete his infectious diseases fellowship and met Steve Meshnick, MD, PhD, a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Epidemiology who has studied malaria for more than 30 years. Meshnick mentored Juliano throughout his fellowship and as he transitioned into a faculty position at UNC. Malaria is the focus of Juliano’s research. He says his lab’s blend of ecology, evolution and genetics attracts likeminded trainees who are passionate about improving global health.
“I knew right away that Jon would be a gifted researcher – and was right,” says Meshnick. “He now has an international reputation in the malaria community as a leader in the use of new technologies to answer questions with important public health impact. Plus he is a great colleague and a great person!”
Paying It Forward
Juliano is quick to say the success of his mentees is based upon “their effort.” Yet, Jessica Lin, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine in UNC’s Division of Infectious Diseases, says Juliano’s support ensured her research career was off and running.
“Jon has been generous with sharing his resources in terms of personnel, equipment and time,” says Lin, who researches malaria in Southeast Asia. “Especially early on when I had no money for technical help in the lab and my time was torn between clinical duties, classes and the responsibilities of being a new mom, Jon assigned his technician to lend me a hand on key projects that allowed me to publish in a timely manner, and subsequently, obtain funding for myself.”
Natalie Bowman, MD, MPH, works with Juliano and Lin in the IDEEL lab. IDEEL stands for Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology and Ecology Lab. Bowman, who researches HIV and other parasitic co-infections in Latin America, says writing her letter of recommendation for Juliano to receive the teaching award was the easiest letter she has ever written.
“His mentorship extends beyond the day-to-day instruction in laboratory techniques and data analysis, as he has provided me and others with invaluable career advice and sets a superb model for the type of physician-scientist I hope to be in a few years,” Bowman says.
Christian Parobek is a medical student and PhD candidate at UNC. Juliano is his thesis advisor.
“Each year, Dr. Juliano teaches the malaria courses for medical students and epidemiology PhD students. I know from personal experience that he brings unbounded enthusiasm to his lectures – from roaming the room to interact with students to standing on the desk in the front of the classroom to make a point,” Parobek says. “In the short time he has been on faculty, three UNC ID fellows and one Duke ID fellow have chosen Dr. Juliano as a research advisor. That three of these fellows have successfully made the transition to Assistant Professor at UNC and Duke is a testament to Dr. Juliano’s mentoring effectiveness.”
Juliano splits his time treating patients, researching malaria, teaching, and serving as Associate Program Director of UNC’s Infectious Diseases Fellowship Training Program and Medical Director of UNC Health Care’s Antibiotic Stewardship Program. He says being an academic physician-scientist is a tough existence and he is happy to help a student or colleague when he can.
“To become that triple threat – researcher, clinician and teacher – is a hard life and I know I would not likely be here if it were not for the support of my wife, Erin, and my family. The research environment is especially competitive and lots of intelligent people wash out after a while,” Juliano says. “You really don’t take vacation and it can be hard to disconnect. I make sure I am home for dinner with my wife and son every night, but I never completely shut off from work. I want to help other people in this field succeed. I like trying to be a good mentor. I had great mentors in Mark, Fred and Steve, and I want people to say that about me.”