James & Lisa Crowe: Impacting The Universe

Jim and Lisa – they dreamed, they dared, they’re helping to solve some of humanity’s most difficult challenges.

It was meant to be. They met at a Halloween party, he dressed as a punk rocker and she as Tarzan’s Jane. Each was in their first year of medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Initially friends, their companionship grew into love over the years. A week before graduation in 1987, they married and flew off to Europe for their honeymoon, skipping their commencement ceremony. Dr. James Crowe, Jr. and his wife, Lisa, have been inseparable ever since, each excelling in their own careers and always in loving support of each another.

Backpacking in Big South Fork, TN

Love for family is the bedrock of Dr. Crowe’s life and its preciousness is what drives him to do his work. Seared into his memory is a pivotal moment in his life while on a medical mission in Africa. He recalls the desperate cries of a poor family seeking help for their child. He offered to help but the child died in his arms. The wailing of the parents convicted his heart and became the catalyst that would forever mark the direction of his career. It was then that he decided to dedicate his life in pursuit of pediatrics specializing in infectious diseases.

An Exceptional Mindset

Today, Dr. Crowe is a viral immunologist and board-certified pediatric infectious diseases specialist. He is Professor of Pediatrics, Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt Medical Center, Ann Scott Carell Chair, and Director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center.

Source: Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Most of his career has been spent on research in the laboratory in areas of viral immunology, vaccines, human immunology, and nanomedicine. So much of his time is spent performing laboratory research that he no longer provides clinical care. He now runs a research laboratory with 50 individuals and about $120 million of extramural research support. They work in the Crowe Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, a top 10 medical center in the United States.

He says, “Essentially, it is like I am running a biotech company, but I’m doing it inside a university and medical school, so that many of the individuals that are participating in the work are training in science, obtaining PhDs, MDs, and other degrees.”

Photo by Anne Rayner

Innovative Research

His team works in the area of viral immunology and antibody sciences. Their aim is to discover mechanisms essential to the development of new therapeutics and vaccines. Some of the lab’s vaccine candidates and monoclonal antibodies are being used in clinical trials or late preclinical development with commercial partners.

Their work entails obtaining blood samples from people who have survived infections, such as Ebola, Zika, HIV, influenza viruses, hepatitis C, or other challenging infectious disease, and use those samples to understand how those humans fought off the infection. Then, they convert some of the genes and molecules found in those people into drugs that can be given to other individuals to protect them or treat them from these infections.

Dr. Crowe and his team’s work has been published in over 300 leading medical journals such as JAMAScience, New England Journal of Medicine, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The lab is also heavily involved with biodefense research in developing countermeasures for bioterrorism.

Collecting rare blood samples from individuals from all over the world who have survived severe infections like Ebola are the key to the success of the work.

Scientist Nurgun Kose processes blood samples in a laminar flow containment hood in the Crowe lab at Vanderbilt.

A Bit of Background

The oldest of three children, he grew up in Winston Salem, North Carolina where he enjoyed being a Boy Scout, Little League Baseball player, and active member in his church and attended the academic high school Forsyth Country Day. During his teen years, his initial interest in the medical and scientific fields was formed when he went to work with his father, a pediatric radiologist.

He was a Stuart Scholar at Davidson College, and attended UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine, where he met classmate Lisa. After their marriage in Chapel Hill, NC in 1987, Dr. Crowe completed his residency for pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Once clinical training was completed, he received five years of post-doctoral training in the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD in the laboratory of noted vaccine researcher Robert Chanock (a prominent protégé of Dr. Albert Sabin, inventor of the oral poliovirus vaccine).

Respiratory syncytial virus (in red) infecting airway cells (in blue).

In 1995, Dr. Crowe joined the faculty at Vanderbilt med school, having been impressed with the university’s student-faculty interaction and diversity. In 1996, he completed fellowship training for infectious diseases at Vanderbilt and has been running an independent research laboratory there ever since.

Dr. Crowe also has directed two core laboratories that serve the entire medical center community of scientists: the Human Immunology Core and the Flow Cytometry and Cell Sorting Core. In 2017, he founded IDBiologics, Inc., an antibody discovery biotech company.

In March of 2017 at TEDx Nashville, Dr. Crowe gave a TEDx Talk entitled Unraveling the Mystery of Immunity. He actually draws his own blood live on stage. You can watch his TEDx Talk here…

His Life’s Work

The body of work Dr. Crowe has accomplished is both substantive and significant. Recognized and hailed by the medical and scientific communities, he was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2014 and the National Academy of Inventors in 2017.

He has received investigative awards from the March of Dimes, American Society of Microbiology, and others. Honored with many distinguished awards, he is the recipient of the Oswald Avery Award of the IDSA, the Outstanding Investigator Award of the American Federation for Medical Research, the Norman J. Siegel Award of the American Pediatric Society, and the Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, just to name a few. In 2019, he was awarded € 1 million Future Insight Prize, a major science prize worth more than the Nobel Prize in value, by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a leading science and technology company to recognize his vision for ambitious dream products to prevent pandemic infections.

Dr. Crowe is an elected Fellow of many professional organizations including AAM, AAAS, ASCI and AAP, IDSA, APS, and others. His laboratory was named the Best Academic Research Team at the 2018 Annual Vaccine Industry Excellence Awards. “I was especially proud to see our whole laboratory and research administration group recognized as the leading academic research team in the vaccine industry that year,” he said.

The Crowe lab at a Vanderbilt is a diverse group of scientists, project managers, computer experts and administrators.

Spending time sweating.

Jim has spent over a decade participating in endurance sports include ultrarunning – such as the Western States and Arkansas Traveler 100-mile races, the Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim run, the Comrades 89k road ultramarathon in South Africa, and others, including cycling and multisport events. He is three-time Ironman finisher; swim-bike-run!

A Perfect Pairing

Lisa and Jim both are laid back and quiet in nature. She once said in an interview, “He is so intelligent and has a very strong faith. We enjoy spending time together.” They have two lovely and accomplished children who also enjoy spending time with family. Son Stephen Crowe is an electrical engineer who works for Sensorfield, a startup company in Houston, TX, with his wife Erika, and daughter Catherine Crowe has worked in NC with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and more recently El Kilombo in Durham NC, a social justice community.

Lisa Crowe, M.D.  – walking her own unique path

Lisa is an exceptionally accomplished professional. She got at B.A. in French Language and Literature with High Distinction at the University of Virgina, then attended UNC Medical School where she earned Honors status in her third and fourth years and received the Terre Brennaman Award for her commitment to serve the underserved.

She worked as a physician for several decades as a family practitioner or general practitioner in diverse settings including private practice, managed care and urgent care clinics, student health clinics at Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, and at Faith Family Medical Center in Nashville, serving the working uninsured. She also has served as a physician on a lot of international medical missions trips all over the world, including in Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and others.

She has worked in Haiti a number of times starting in 1986, including months after the devastating earthquake event in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left a million homeless and living in tents. Part of a multi-national, multi-disciplinary medical team, she taught and mentored medical and other health professions students while in Haiti.

Lisa Crowe, M.D. in clinic, Port-au-Prince Haiti

In the last several years, Lisa chose to close her practice to pursue community building and creative endeavors. Very involved in the community, she is an advocate for refugees and activist in racial reconciliation efforts organized through community and women’s groups. She has served on the board of the Nashville International Center for Empowerment that serves refugees and immigrants, and she is on the board of One Voice Nashville, which builds bridges and closes gaps in the community by valuing all voices through storytelling and narrative journalism. She is active at the Porch, Nashville’s writers collective.

She is the Founder of @Table, a salon event enterprise that bridges historical divides by events with meals and outstanding speakers and participants from diverse backgrounds. The inaugural event headlined Joshua DuBois a writer (author of The President’s Devotional) and political and religious leader who served as the head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Executive Office of President Obama.

Lisa Crowe leading an @Table event, headlining Dr. Andre Churchwell, author, artist, sartorialist and physician.

She is an accomplished visual artist with a free spirit and experimental bent, working in creative film photography and other analog formats. Her website features examples of images made with alternative analog (film) cameras such as a 120 medium format Holga, a Lomo’Instant Camera Sanremo using Fuji Instax Mini Film, a Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 Instant Camera shooting large format Instax film, Polaroid Emulsion Image Transfers, cyanotypes (a photographic printing process on paper or fabric using the sun and the two chemicals ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide to make blue-tinted images), or a Kodak Retina for 35 mm transparencies and film.

She is a published author, specializing in creative nonfiction work; she was highlighted in You journal in December 2018. She also earned her certification for lay counseling in 2015 at the Allender Center in Seattle, WA.

Staying fit

Lisa is very physically active. She is a regular runner and does yoga several times a week. She is an adventurer, casting off solo or sometimes with Jim on backcountry backpacking trips in the Tetons, Glacier National Park, or in the wilds of TN.

She’s a thoughtful walker. She spent 2 weeks solo this year on a pilgrimage on the Tuscan portion of The Via Francigena, the ancient route that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome.

She also is well-known in Nashville as an animal whisperer, with a passion and special gifts for communicating with both feral and domestic animals.

Communing with fancy goats.

The Crowe’s are avid art collectors with a penchant for pieces with African, Caribbean, and Haitian influences as well as curious “road trash” art. He sees his laboratory projects very much like the art he collects, appreciating the visual aesthetics of molecular or cellular biology which involves imaging including 3-D.

A view of the Crowe’s home office, with displays of untrained and international art.

Together, Dr. Crowe and Lisa are creating their own masterpiece, each elevating their craft to make a real difference for mankind by easing the pain and suffering so prevalent in the world today.

Learn more about Dr. Crowe’s groundbreaking work at www.vumc.org/crowe-lab.

Photo by John Russell