For T. Jake Liang, MD, FAASLD, this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Clinician Educator/Mentor Award, mentorship never ends. He still relies on his own mentors for advice and guidance in his career.
“I had several mentors who were quite influential in my early stage of thinking. These are the people I still go to for feedback, opinions, and input. Mentorship doesn’t really stop as you move on. It’s a lifelong experience,” said Dr. Liang, Chief of the Liver Diseases Branch and Deputy Director of Translational Research, NIDDK, National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Liang will be honored today at 2:30 pm in the auditorium and balcony of the convention center.
“I have been fortunate enough to interact with some of the giants in the field, and clearly these people had profound influence on me,” he said. “What I was encouraged to do was to develop my own independent path and really find my own passion and define my own focus. That advice certainly has a lot to do with my later accomplishments, to be able to claim something as my own niche.”
Dr. Liang traces his interest in liver research back to high school, when he worked to develop a liver cell culture system to study the production of plasma protein. While he didn’t pursue studies in liver in his undergraduate years at Harvard College, that early exposure in high school was clearly informative.
“That’s when I learned a lot about the liver, what it can do, and what its vital functions are in daily life, and it has certainly become a fascinating organ for me since that time,” he said.
While in clinical training at Harvard, the liver became a focus of interest again as he pursued the gastroenterology path and studied virus and virology.
“I thought I could combine my interest in liver as well as virology. Viral hepatitis obviously became very important for my research interest,” he said. “I thought this would be a great combination for me to go into: hepatology with a focus on viral hepatitis. That’s how I ended up in the field of liver disease and hepatology.”
Dr. Liang is now an internationally renowned and prominent thought leader in the field of viral hepatitis and liver diseases who has published more than 300 scientific papers. He has also served as an Associate Editor for Gastroenterology, HEPATOLOGY and Gut, and has been a member of the AASLD Governing Board, serving as President in 2011.
“During my fellowship year, I had some very influential mentors that introduced me to AASLD. AASLD has certainly been my home professional society for almost 30 years,” he said. “It has been a wonderful and rewarding experience to me as well as a career opportunity, in that I can interact with a lot of my colleagues, exchange scientific knowledge, discuss research priorities and even set policies regarding liver diseases. So I really think it has been a society of everything I could ask for as far as my career development.”
Dr. Liang noted that over the course of that 30-year career, treatment and management of liver disease, particularly viral hepatitis, has seen “a tremendous sea change.”
“Hepatitis C was somewhat of an obscure disease for many years because we didn’t know what it was. Now within 25 years of its discovery, we have a cure that can be effective in 90 percent of people,” he said. “This is a collective contribution from many, many people in the field regarding what we are able to achieve at this stage. Advances in hepatitis C are what I consider the greatest accomplishment in the field during my career. I’m proud to be part of it. Obviously there are many, many scientists, researchers and clinicians who contributed to this accomplishment.”
Additionally, Dr. Liang has mentored and trained more than 100 students and fellows, many of whom have academic and research careers, including several who currently hold senior leadership positions. His own experience as a mentee has guided how he now mentors his fellows.
“A very important lesson I learned from one of my mentors is ‘don’t ever sit on your laurels. You are only as good as your next accomplishment’,” he said. “I try to instill that into my mentees. I try to help them find themselves. My advice to them is to do something you love. You have to have a passion for it. You want to have a career that is not just a job but also a calling you are going to love for the rest of your life. You will have such a fulfilling life if you love what you do.”