Andy Thliveris: 'Remember the Undergrads'
In December 2022, Andrew Thliveris BS’83 made a special trip to Salt Lake City with his wife Lauren. They joined the School of Biological Sciences in a belated (due to the pandemic) remembrance of K. Gordon Lark who had passed away more than two-and-a-half years earlier in April 2020.
Vice Chair and Ophthalmology Residency Training Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Thliveris, until his retirement in September, was also Chief of Ophthalmology at the W.S. Middleton VA and holds the rank of Professor at the School of Medicine in Madison. At the event “Andy” remembered that as an undergraduate he worked in the Lark lab for five years and that Lark had a profound impact on him. “He changed my life,” reported Thliveris whose main message to the faculty and friends who had gathered was “Remember the undergraduate students.”
Thliveris also surprised many by announcing that through his affiliation with the Carl Berg Foundation he had arranged to fully fund the Lark Endowed Chair with a check for $430,000. The Lark fund was established in 2017, followed in July 2022 with a campaign to “re-boot.” The ambition was to achieve the level of endowed professorship through an anonymous, matching donation of $250,000. But with Thliveris’ brokered gift—added to many others from generous individual donors—the K. Gordon Lark Endowment was elevated to the more prestigious level of endowed chair.
'Get this guy under control'
With his characteristic humor, Thliveris was eager to recall his time in Lark’s lab. He confessed to being that “pesky nerdy undergrad, high-maintenance, known to call Gordon at 11 pm on several occasions, [until] finally, Gordon, then speaking to his post-doc Paul Keim, [said], ‘You’ve got to get this guy under control because I have no idea what the hell I told him last night.’”
Lark wasn’t the only one who mentored, managed and otherwise inspired that “pesky” undergrad. Addressing Nobel laureate and Lark colleague Mario Capecchi who was at the event as well, Thliveris remembered how “you spent many hours with me in your office when you taught biochemistry. I was always in there.” He also recalled Baldomero “Toto” Olivera and his amazing cone snails which would later prove critical in the advance of alternatives to opioid pain relievers, as well as the late Naomi Franklin who helped bring sequencing to Lark’s lab and its occupants.
Regarding Martin “Marty” Rechsteiner, now in the U’s Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine, Thliveris recounted his professor “who on the first day of his class of trembling undergrads told us that if we memorized every word out of this mouth then we might just pass his class.”
Clearly, Thiliveris’ sojourn at the U as an undergraduate where he majored in biology and geology & geophysics, and later attended the U’s medical school where he earned his MD, prepared him well. Following his ophthalmology residency at Wisconsin in 1998, he was a postdoctoral research fellow as a launch to his auspicious 28-year career. After joining the faculty in 2000, he took on the position of Veterans Affairs Hospital service chief and later, in 2014, vice chair of resident education and residency director — roles he held until his retirement and during which time he trained countless physicians, including many of the department’s own faculty.
'Ball of energy'
At the announcement of his retirement, Thilveris said, “Our residents are beyond amazing, and the dedication from the faculty to our program has made short work for our education team. We have a very proud tradition here and are poised to continue for generations to come.” In hearing the news, many in Wisconsin responded with memories of his meticulous teaching, patience, wisdom, and, of course, his delightful sense of humor.
“I am beyond grateful to Andy for his role in my own training and in my recruitment back to UW-Madison,” said Evan Warner, MD. “His kindness, openness, and genuine concern for each and every colleague, trainee, and staff member has been foundational to our department culture, and it is such a privilege to be a part of it. As residency program director, he has been a ball of energy with so many ideas and such passion for seeking feedback and making things better for the residents.”
Thliveris will also be remembered for his work as director of the department’s cataract extraction phacoemulsification course. In this three-year progressive course, medical and veterinary ophthalmology residents, UW and visiting medical students, and pre-residency fellows from around the country learn the latest cataract surgical techniques. Daniel Knoch, MD who will assume the role of veterans affairs service chief following Thliveris' retirement recalled how “There are dozens of residents, numerous faculty, and thousands of patients that Andy has helped through his after-hours videos, toolbox approach to surgical teaching, probing questions, and high standards.” Anna Momont, MD who has assumed the role of ophthalmology residency training program director acknowledged that because of Thliveris’ “unwavering dedication to our residents and their training,” is leaving the department nationally recognized and a “highly sought-after residency program.”
'Full steam ahead'
To recognize Thliveris’ lasting legacy, the department dedicated its new Surgical Skills Training Facility in his honor. The new space, which expands the department’s training capacity by providing 10 training pods, each outfitted with state-of-the art equipment, will be instrumental in training the next generation of eyecare specialists. “While the decision to retire was a very emotional one,” says Thliveris, it comforts me greatly to know that I am leaving things in such capable hands. Full steam ahead.”
Whatever Gordon Lark said during those 11 pm phone calls to Andrew Thliveris must have been spectacular. And now with the K. Gordon Lark Endowed Chair poised to announce its first recipient soon, the undergraduate has made sure the legacy of founder of the School of Biological Sciences will continue.