David Hillyard, BS’73

David HillyARD

 

 

When David Hillyard, BS’73, was recognized in November with a Healthcare Hero Award, he was quick to share the love. “This honor should really go to the fantastic team of individuals I’ve been working with who have made high-capacity, quality COVID testing possible,” Hillyard said. “It’s very flattering, but every day I just think about the critical contributions front-line laboratory workers make for this effort every day.”

The sentiment is typical of the collaborative and generous nature of the Professor of Pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and founding Director of Molecular Infectious Disease Testing at ARUP, the largest academic laboratory in the country.

“This year, Utah’s healthcare leaders went above and beyond, pivoting their time, creativity, ingenuity, and magnanimity to face off against a global pandemic,” read the Utah Business citation. “This is only the beginning of our nation’s battle against COVID-19 … and we are so grateful to these warriors for leading the charge.”

Hillyard’s interest in the U started with a love of Ute basketball in the era of its legendary coach Jack Gardner, known as “the Fox,” who shepherded five All Americans, including Billy “The Hill” McGill.

“In high school, I visited the U for hosted debate and drama competitions and got a glimpse of its campus. I never thought I could afford to go out-of-state for college and saved all of my earnings … to be able to pay for at least a first year at the U.”  Scores of lawn mowings later and he had tuition which at that time was $175 per quarter. “I also had the academic blessing,” he says,“ of my Uncle Charlie, a renowned nuclear physicist, who received his PhD at the U and gave the science departments a high rating.”

Hillyard’s acceptance to the U was transformative for the Ogden native whose “first rate education” in biology and chemistry was elevated by the extraordinary opportunity to participate in basic research beginning his sophomore year. Professor K. Gordon Lark would arrive during Hillyard’s sojourn in the Department of Biology, now the School of Biological Sciences, and the legendary chair, who passed away in April, turbo-charged the department with newly recruited faculty of outstanding molecular biologists and distinguished visiting professors.

The expanding breadth and rigor of the department was an accelerant to Hillyard, allowing for him graduate level exposure to biology as an undergraduate but most importantly, he says, personal mentoring in bioresearch in “a thrillingly fun environment. Without question, these short years were the foundation for a happy career and any professional successes to come.”

As an undergraduate in Dr. Baldomero “Toto” Olivera’s lab, he worked on differences in pathways and magnitude of turnover of the metabolic cofactor NAD in e. colio and Hela cells.  “My fondest memories of my time at the U are informal dinner parties with lab mates and visiting scientists at the home of [Toto]” he recalls, adding that the “[l]ate night jaunts with Toto to the Roadway Inn for apple pie ala mode and experiment planning rank way up there too.” Many would agree with him that Olivera’s mentoring of undergraduates at the U is legendary.

Later, with the advent of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a kind of molecular photocopying now commonly used in biology labs, Hillyard collaborated with Olivera on the identification and cloning of conopeptide genes from venomous marine snails, groundbreaking work that has since been widely celebrated as a potential replacement for opioids and their vaulting addictive properties. “As a clinical pathologist,” says Hillyard, “my work has focused on molecular infectious disease test development and the clinical application of these tests.”

Following graduation from the U, Hillyard pursued medical training at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City along with fellowship training in pathology. He then returned to the U for fellowship training in microbial genetics and medical microbiology followed by a position as assistant investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the U’s School of Medicine. He also joined the faculty of the Department of Pathology.

Hillyard figured prominently in establishing a test to meet the nationwide demand for diagnosing COVID-19. Beginning in January he and researchers at ARUP validated one of the first high-throughput diagnostic COVID-19 tests in the nation. With Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late February 2020, Hillyard and his team worked around the clock to ensure they had a test ready to launch in March with a turnaround time of less than two weeks.

More recently Hillyard and his team have worked on developing co-tests for Covid-19/Flu AB/ and respiratory syncytial virus. “The scale and urgency of the project has certainly been challenging and a bit life changing,” he confesses, “but is dwarfed by the positive experiences of working with teams of dedicated laboratorians stepping up to the plate with their hard work, problem-solving, and commitment to do good.”

“There are so many surprises with COVID-19 that you’re never fully prepared, no matter how ready you think you are,” said Hillyard in the Utah Business profile in November, as he described preparing for flu season with cases continuing to rise. “The flu season hasn’t been very bad in the southern hemisphere this year, perhaps because of physical distancing and other measures taken to mitigate COVID-19 spread, but the flu will come.”

The good doctor’s COVID-19 research has been in collaboration with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks whose co-founder Reshma Shetty is another celebrated alum of the Olivera lab. Together with other government and non-profit health organizations they’ve studied the genetics of the virus in Utah and analyzed how its molecular makeup is evolving. The consortium has also conducted a major study comparing testing accuracy across different labs and instrument platforms.

No doubt the pandemic has been a singular time for all of us, but being on the frontlines of infectious disease testing has put a megaphone on all of it for Hillyard. Beyond family, he takes refuge in bicycling, especially hill climb racing. “I also love hiking, photography and as a wellness advocate for my department, [I] enjoy keeping up on the latest in food science. Unfortunately," he admits, "I’m a terrible cook."

Terrible in the kitchen or not, in his typical generous fashion Hillyard is quick to offer thoughtful advice to the next generation of scientists and health professionals. “[T]rain broadly, recognizing the importance of multiple skill sets for a successful career,” he says. “I would also suggest seeking out the best mentors at the best institutions in an environment where you can build personal relationships and also have fun.”

Dr. David Hillyard is a model U Biology alumni, transforming his immersion in undergraduate research with star, engaged faculty to a most elevated and award-winning legacy underscored by public service.

Uncle Charlie, it turns out, was right.

 

 
by David Pace
 

Steve Mimnaugh, BS’73

Steve Mimnaugh and Jay Johnson

Most people get to live one life. So far, Steve Mimnaugh has lived at least three.

"I was always the new kid on the block," he says. From Seattle to Spokane, Washington, and from Wallace, Idaho where his father worked as a mining engineer, to Kearns, Utah, to survive Mimnaugh tacked through life as an extrovert, ending up in student government. His extroversion served him well as this biology alumnus advanced into a spirited life as an emergency physician, member of a rock-and-roll band and co-founder of the innovative and celebrated 'SPLORE (Special Populations Learning Outdoor Recreation and Education), a nonprofit founded in 1978 and dedicated to getting folks with disabilities out into white water rafting and other outdoor sports.

Diverse interests, especially as a young person, can make it difficult to get one’s footing. Such was the case for Mimnaugh, at least at the University of Utah where he moved into research during his undergraduate years, started a PhD, and haltingly applied to medical school three alternating years before being admitted to the U’s. There he was also elected class president. The deviations in his academic career seem to have had more to do with his personality rather than any kind of deficiency. In short, this self-described "granola cruncher" has been in a high evolutionary state his entire life, seemingly barreling through whole epochs in record, breathless time.

On the Green River, Desolation Canyon

Being a biologist, evolution tracks well with Mimnaugh's start-and-stop, somewhat circuitous path. His impetus has always been the need to adapt to a changing environment whether it be particularly onerous (sometimes bizarre) medical emergencies in critical care, securing an audience for the fledgling band The Disgusting Brothers, or raising funds to execute outdoor recreation geared toward those with disabilities. Sometimes all three lives would overlap if not converge, but his time at the School of Biological Sciences was always propulsive with associations that included future Nobel Prize laureate Mario Capecchi who was on Mimnaugh’s graduate committee and especially mammalogist and anatomist Stephen Durrant who hired Mimnaugh as a Teaching Assistant. Even so, he says, “I was not driven by [the idea of] nebulous [research] problems to work on.” Neither did he groove on all the isolation of the lab while working endlessly, it seemed, on thin-layer chromatography, mammalian cell cultures, transmembrane ion transport, and THC as an anticonvulsant. Medical school was the answer.

His experiences as an ER physician, most recently at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, was perfect for a restless soul who needed variety. It was also a deeply humbling experience, faced as he was regularly with society's most vulnerable populations and some of the, potentially, most humiliating circumstances a person might find themselves in at four o’clock in the morning. “I was no one's doctor, but everyone's doctor,” he says. This included physician to patients with complications of acute alcohol intoxication or to someone suffering from sequestration of rectal foreign bodies. “I got a reputation,” he said, for handling emergencies that required discretion and empathy as much as medical expertise. He also developed a reputation for a bedside manner that had a way of grounding each patient having a traumatic experience back into the collective story that is both familiar and deeply human.

Steve Mimnaugh, 1970s, While in medical school. Other founding members of the band include two other UofU alumni: Curt Crowther, BS'72, MBA'81 and Sam Falsone, BS'74.

While coy about comparing ER work with what soldiers go through in war, he admits to suffering from a kind of PTSD that he’s had to deal with after 35 years. “I never go to sleep without having bad dreams,” he says. Writing about his experiences, now that he’s retired, has helped, and based on a cursory reading of excerpts from his nonfiction manuscript subtitled “Behind the ER Curtain,” the arc and tone of his recounting is both hilarious and touching, deeply informed by science, especially the way evolution plays out in culture and our everyday perceptions of ourselves and of each other. It’s a narrative that promises to do for the reader what Dr. Mimnaugh has regularly done for a broad spectrum of “everyman” patient: it’s okay; we’re all in this together.

It is no surprise that Mimnaugh has a counterweight—more than one, actually—to the intensity of his professional career wearing a stethoscope. As an avid river-runner in the 1970s, he was approached by recreational therapist Martha Ham who explained that there was to date no codified way of getting people with disabilities like cerebral palsy, or spinal cord-injured clients who can't walk, swim, thermoregulate, or apply their own sunscreen safely down a river so that they could enjoy one of the greatest assets of living in Utah: the out-of-doors. Together they founded ‘SPLORE, which, he says, would not have been possible but for the work and love of thousands of volunteers who seemed to benefit as much from what was often a peak experience for them as 'SPLORE's clients. Both Mimnaugh’s life as a musician in an irreverent but beloved Disgusting Brothers Band and his charitable work are symbiotic. The Band whose sound has the passion of an acoustic campfire concert on a whitewater river trip—electrified and amplified--regularly plays its 60/70s favorites for fundraisers, benefiting organizations like Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the AIDS Foundation as well as, back in the day, ‘SPLORE.

The group proceeded to acquire coveted commercial permits on Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest land, as well as for sections of the Colorado and Green Rivers, permits that continue to be the backbone to the services still provided. “It was such an amazing thing,” he recalls referring to his clients with disabilities, “the excitement, awe and wonder… the laughs. They’re out there in the big wide world, not just group homes.” After forty years, eventually bringing 5,000 constituents per year into the wilderness, ‘SPLORE merged with the National Ability Center located in Park City but not before Governor Scott Matheson awarded Mimnaugh and his disgusting brothers who had joined the cause the Governor’s Golden Key Award.

Retirement for Mimnaugh seems to be wearing well for him. He recently married his long-time partner, Jay Johnson, an oncology certified nurse at Huntsman Cancer Institute. And his reading list these days ranges from Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to the poetry of Mary Karr; and from Rituals for Finding Meaning by Sasha Sagan, daughter of the late science celeb Carl Sagan, to the cultural critique of Dave Rubin’s controversial Don't Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason. Then there’s Jared Diamond’s trans-disciplinary non-fiction Guns, Germs & Steel followed by his Collapse and Upheaval. “The universe is 13.8 billion years old,” this Disgusting Brother on the bass and rhythm guitar (as well as vocals) muses, referencing Diamond: “We're here, and in a blink of the eye we're gone."

But this much is certain, he concludes. “We’re good at celebrating stuff.” Perhaps that’s the embedded engine in Steve Mimnaugh for living multiple lives. You need more than one life to celebrate all of it.

by David Pace & Mathew Crawley