The SUS is Pleased to Honor the 2021 SUS Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
B. Mark Evers, MD
About the Lifetime Achievement Award
The Society of University Surgeons (SUS) has awarded B. Mark Evers, MD, Professor, Department of Surgery, Director, Lucille P. Markey Cancer Center, and Markey Cancer Center Director Endowed Chair, University of Kentucky, the 2021 SUS Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Evers will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by SUS President Dr. Kasper Wang on Tuesday, February 1, 2022, at the 17th Annual Academic Surgical Congress (ASC) in Orlando, Florida.
The Society of University Surgeons initiated the Lifetime Achievement Award (LTAA) in 2005. This award was designed to recognize individuals who have had a sustained career in academic surgery with contributions to surgical science. In addition, these individuals have demonstrated a commitment to the Society of University Surgeons, whereby they have participated in the Society even after superannuating to Senior Membership status. Their participation in the Society is evidenced by the attendance of the meetings yearly and active participation in discussion of papers, attendance of the banquets, society functions, and mentoring the next generation of leaders in the society.
The Society of University Surgeons seeks to honor and recognize these individuals because of their embodiment of the principles of the Society. We seek to recognize these individuals to establish role models for younger generations of surgeons to honor and emulate their contributions to the science of surgery, and moreover to the Society of University Surgeons.
Dr. B. Mark Evers was nominated and selected by his peers based on his leadership and contributions to academic surgery, as well as his strong support of the SUS. Dr. Evers’ service to the SUS, as Publications Committee Chair, Secretary, President-Elect, and President of the Society, as well as the SUS Foundation President, exemplify his commitment to the organization. Years ago, Dr. Evers was integral as a key SUS leader in the efforts to partner with the AAS to establish the Academic Surgical Congress, which has since then become arguably the most successful academic surgical conference in the world. Dr. Evers is an outstanding surgeon-scientist with decades long continuous NIH funding, and, in fact, ranks as one of the highest NIH-funded surgical scientists of all time. His legacy of training countless other surgeon-scientists is unparalleled. As such, we wish to recognize his immense contributions to the field of academic surgery with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
A Quintessential General Surgeon
Dr. Evers grew up in what he describes as “a really, small town” of about 1500 people in southern Tennessee. His parents were not in the medical field and in fact his dad had an 8th grade education and his mom had graduated from high school. Dr. Evers was really taken by a general surgeon in the community, Dr. Henry Thomas. He noted that, “in my community, there was God and there was Dr. Thomas, right underneath.” Dr. Thomas was the quintessential general surgeon who would go into his clinic and treat diabetes or heart disease with about 50% of his practice not even related to surgery or patients he had done surgery on. His practice was so varied that he might do a gallbladder then a hysterectomy. Dr. Evers became enamored with that practice, and from an early age, he wanted to be a surgeon. To him, a surgeon was sine qua non of what a physician should be.
Dr. Evers stated that he was truly fortunate and blessed to have had great mentors throughout his early years. Dr. Thomas was certainly a tremendous initial influence on Dr. Evers as “he was a fantastic, hard-working physician who would put in 14-16 hours per day, from the OR to seeing patients.” Dr. Evers’ original plan throughout medical school was to become that quintessential general surgeon, just like Dr. Thomas. He had even spoken to Dr. Thomas about coming back and partnering with him. During medical school at the University of Tennessee, Drs. Lou Britt and Phil Burns further instilled that fire for surgery. They were phenomenal technical surgeons and scrubbing with them on their big GI cases was an absolute delight. During his general surgery residency at the University of Louisville, Dr. Hiram Polk, a former SUS Lifetime Achievement Award Winner encouraged Dr. Evers to pursue a career in academic surgery as he developed an interest in gastrointestinal physiology. After residency, he performed a research fellowship followed by a faculty position for 19 years at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), in Galveston. Drs. Courtney Townsend and Jim Thompson (also two former SUS Lifetime Achievement Award Winners) encouraged Dr. Evers to focus more on GI oncology research. Dr. Evers stated, “it’s really a tribute to great mentorship and outstanding academic surgeons that I deeply admire, who helped steer my career along the way.”
Mentorship is a Lifelong Commitment
Having held leadership roles at the University of Kentucky and UTMB, Dr. Evers stated that he “sees mentorship as a way of giving back for the great mentors that have helped me along the way. I think that you push people, you support them, but then you have to know when to get out of the way and allow your mentees to pursue their own course.” He has also viewed mentorship as something that is a lifelong obligation, as he has mentees who still call for advice. Dr. Evers points out that “at each stage of our careers, we still need mentorship. I need mentorship. It’s good to have people whom you view as lifelong mentors. Mentorship shouldn’t stop with the 2-3 years of training, it’s a lifelong commitment.”
Certainly during the COVID 19 pandemic, mentorship has shifted to the virtual arena. Dr. Evers admits that he has had a difficult time as he has never really embraced Zoom meetings. They can feel impersonal making it a bit more difficult to mentor. The pandemic has been more challenging for those that crave that in-person type of interaction; however, he still tries to be there for his mentees.
A Different Path
Many surgeons aspire to move up into leadership positions as division chiefs or department chairs. Dr. Evers took a different path as a Cancer Center Director, a role he absolutely loves. He stated that some Chairs become very administrative and either stop operating or do so in a limited capacity or stop engaging in research. He states that “some Chairs tend to become more concerned with increasing clinical RVUs, which can conflict with the academic mission.” As such, Dr. Evers feels that “those who are interested in leadership, should be open to other types of leadership positions, whether it be Transplant, Cardiovascular or Cancer Center Director, or other types of leadership. I would encourage people to be broad-minded in that regard and to follow their passion.” Dr. Evers stated that those considering leaving an institution should consider whether the institution is still providing opportunities to grow as a leader. If so, then stay and progress up the ranks. On the other hand, leaving, while scary, can also be reinvigorating with new people, challenges and opportunities to grow as a leader.
In the current landscape of academic surgery, hospital administrators and academic leaders often have opposing missions. In terms of advice for faculty members who have aspirations of becoming future surgical leaders, it gets back to being open-minded in terms of leadership. Early on, Dr. Evers envisioned himself going down the Surgery Chair route, but as “I became more immersed in research and the team building, I found working with teams of clinicians, researchers and population scientists to solve a clinically-important problem was very gratifying.” Over the years, he has come to greatly appreciate that, as a Cancer Center Director, he gets the opportunity to work closely with talented and diverse individuals from multiple disciplines and backgrounds, and this kept him fresh and invigorated.
Pick the Ones You are Passionate About
Dr. Evers has been President of the SUS, the SUS Foundation, and Southern Surgical Association as well as Treasurer of the American Surgical Association, amongst a handful of leadership positions. Instead of serving 10-15 different organizations and societies, Dr. Evers has picked the ones for which he was passionate. This enabled him to mesh his leadership skills better with the organization in order to make more of an impact rather than being spread too thin in multiple societies. Dr. Evers affirmed that it is “important to serve on committees early in your career and then work your way up to other leadership positions.”
You Can’t Know Everything
Dr. Evers’ laboratory has been continuously funded by the NIH for the last 29 years, and he is one of the top NIH-funded surgical scientists ever. Dr. Evers feels it comes down to the people that you surround yourself with. He has been fortunate through the years to have had many of the same people with him in the laboratory. When he moved from Texas to Kentucky, the entire laboratory moved with him. That was pivotal because if they hadn’t, Dr. Evers believes that his personal research program would have been dead in the water. It would have been a near impossible challenge to simultaneously organize and direct a Cancer Center while hiring completely new people and training them in the laboratory. Dr. Evers also has never viewed research as a silo but rather as a team approach. Dr. Evers stated that he has been “fortunate to have had great collaborators, some of whom we have been collaborating with for over 25 years. This has been a great working relationship and scientific partnership. I encourage all of my trainees to incorporate this model of collaboration, because it’s impossible to know everything. Science is much more fun as a team sport.”
It’s a Lifelong Struggle
Dr. Evers advises surgeons to stay focused on your goals and to be passionate. One thing that he struggles with from an academic perspective, is maintaining both surgical and research skills. Over his time, things have changed so much, surgeries have changed. When he started out, all surgeries were performed as open procedures. Now, most procedures are minimally invasive and performed either laparoscopically or using a robot. It has forced surgeons to continually evolve. At the same time, new and rapidly-evolving research techniques (for example, molecular biology, genomic sequencing and cloning, transgenic models, etc.) have emerged. Dr. Evers feels that “if you want to maintain proficiency in research, it’s always been difficult for clinicians, but especially surgeons, because you are competing for grants with the pure PhDs who don’t have clinical responsibilities and can devote 100% of their effort to staying current with new research techniques and concepts. Mid-level career academic surgeons can fall off the radar from a research perspective because it becomes so difficult to maintain not only the clinical skills but also the research skills.” He has maintained his research skills because it has been a passion. He still works on grants and papers late at night and on weekends. It’s a lifelong struggle, but it has truly been a very gratifying and rewarding experience. Dr. Evers tells people “I could never give up surgery but I could never give up research either because that’s a huge part of me and allows me to use a different side of my brain. It allows me to think from a very mechanistic perspective and to address clinically relevant problems. It also gets back to having a great team. I am so appreciative of having a great laboratory group that is interested in constantly taking on new challenges and learning new techniques to further propel our research goals.”
Work-life balance is critical. Dr. Evers emphasizes that as busy as he has always been, he has maintained his family as a top priority. He made it a point to attend his children’s sporting and school events, which he considered as a priority. For him, it was a matter of how he best utilized his time. It was extremely important to him to be there for his children.
It was an Exciting Time
Dr. Hiram Polk was instrumental in encouraging Dr. Evers to be involved in the SUS even as a resident. According to Dr. Evers, Dr. Polk thought very highly of the SUS and emphasized the importance of involvement with the Society. In those days, there was a resident session at the SUS Annual Meeting and that was where Dr. Evers gave his first presentation. Dr. Evers laughs as he stated, “It was brutal and I got asked some really tough questions. I still remember sweating quite a bit during that presentation.” Drs. Thompson and Townsend both thought highly of the SUS and encouraged him to become more involved as a junior faculty and to consider leadership roles. Dr. Evers served on the Publications Committee in the mid-90s and became Secretary in 1997. Dr. Evers’ most exciting meeting was his Presidential year in Hawaii, which he felt was a phenomenal meeting. Back then, the Executive Council had the opportunity to shift away from the traditional smaller society with a more limited but superb scientific meeting to something greater and more diverse. It was an exciting time because the Council and leadership were looking to transform the way the meeting was run and how it looked. The Council brought in a philanthropic consultant, who helped the SUS establish a Foundation. It was a transformational and very exciting time and each year more changes were implemented which completely changed and invigorated the annual meeting. For example, one of the changes was breaking the tradition of having the meeting at an academic institution, which could be quite challenging for some locations in February. The meeting transformed to more destination locations with a larger capacity that could accommodate the expanding attendance. Later in the evolution, the concept of a combined meeting with the Association of Academic Surgery was introduced. There was much concern that such a meeting would not work. Many worried that it would be a flop and that no one would come. However, Council at the time felt that a combined meeting format would work and that it was important to innovate. The first meeting of the Academic Surgical Congress (ASC) was a great success. Each year it has grown but no one knew that the ASC would grow to what it is today. There was considerable energy and passion for the changes to the Society that were implemented. The Council at the time had a passion for making it different and making it more vibrant, it was so much fun to be involved with the SUS Council during this time of exciting changes to the society.
I Wouldn’t Be Here
We always ask our LTAA winners if there is anything about them that would surprise people. Dr. Evers shared that he is a huge fan of the Rolling Stones and has been to countless of their concerts. He has even turned his kids onto the Stones and now they are hooked on their music. Dr. Evers also enjoys hiking and outdoor activities. Dr. Evers and his son have also taken up a lot of new outdoor activities together, such as hunting, trap and skeet.
Dr. Evers says that he has “a very supportive family and I wouldn’t be here today for sure if not for them.” Dr. Evers thanked his wife Karen, whom he married in 1984. She has always been extremely supportive of his career. Dr. Evers is extremely proud of his two children. His daughter is a GI fellow at the University of Virginia. His son graduated from Vanderbilt as a chemical engineer and is considering going to medical school. Dr. Evers affirmed, “I have also been fortunate to have had three former Lifetime Achievement Award Winners as mentors, but never dreamed that I would ever achieve this in my own career, so this is a huge honor and I am grateful for that.”
The Society of University Surgeons is honored to present Dr. B. Mark Evers with the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Academic Surgical Congress on February 1, 2022, taking place in Orlando, Florida. He is the true embodiment of the type of individual that this award seeks to recognize.