Dr. Collins chats with students in one of NCSSM's labs.


NIH Director Francis Collins visits NCSSM, spends the afternoon with students

NCSSM senior Austin Phillips did his very best to carry on as normal as he explored the electrophysiology of crickets in Dr. Ashton Powell’s neuroscience class. But it was hard to focus. Peeking over his shoulder was Dr. Francis Collins, director of the federally-funded and globally-admired National Institutes of Health and one of the world’s preeminent researchers. Scientists and research organizations across the globe would covet such an audience, yet there Collins stood behind Austin, acknowledging the significance of high school research. 

“It was definitely nerve-wracking because he’s so powerful,” said Austin, from Winston-Salem. “Like, he’s Francis Collins.” 

Dr. Collins’ visit, which was orchestrated in large part by his grandson, Sellers Hill, an NCSSM senior from Wilmington, received unanimous praise as one of the most important — and entertaining — visitors the school has ever had.

“Being a junior here, you never really expect you’re going to meet such powerful people,” said Serenity Phillips of Oak Ridge. “But Dr. Collins was so approachable and so nice and it reminded us that he was Sellers’ grandfather.”

Dr. Collins’ affable nature was a surprise, as well, for senior Vrinda Desai of Cramerton. “I was expecting a real quiet and stiff kind of man,” she said. “But it was really nice to have someone that was just really engaging, even with us on the most foundational level.”

Students share a casual meal with the director of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Collins’ visit to NCSSM began with a lunch of sandwiches, chips and pickles with 15 of NCSSM’s fortunate students in a small conference room. While excited faculty and staff banished from the room buzzed about outside in anticipation, the students queried Dr. Collins about his personal history, the function of the NIH, and his rise to the top of the research organization, as well as posing more targeted questions about specific research and initiatives in which the NIH is participating. Dr. Collins’ responses, delivered with a warmth and humility that erased any anticipated air of intimidating authority, covered a number of milestones in life sciences research, touching on the human genome project, public-private collaborations in international health, and the complicated case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells formed one of the most important cell lines in medical research history and whose family Dr. Collins had grown to know well.

“Dr. Collins is a humble reminder that good work is done by dedicated people,” said Jackson Meade, an NCSSM senior from Charlotte who was one of the lucky diners. “If I had to name the things I learned from Dr. Collins’ visit, I would say stay dedicated, celebrate others, and be open to the new.”

Collins toured NCSSM’s campus, spending time in the labs and classrooms where he engaged in conversations with curious students.

From lunch, Dr. Collins moved to NCSSM’s packed-out auditorium where the NCSSM community had turned out en-masse for his afternoon presentation. “The chance to be able to talk to you a little bit about what’s happening in biomedical research is just really something I’ve been looking forward to,” Dr. Collins said to begin his extemporaneous presentation. “And I will tell you right now, I am unabashed in hoping that I can lure some of you into careers in this area because the time is now. We are in the century of biology, and we are at that point in the century. . . where some of the things that I would not have dreamed could be possible in my own lifetime are becoming realities.”

Dr. Collins’ remarks elicited reactions that spanned the emotional spectrum; early on students laughed at his stories of his youthful attempts to flatter prospective dates, and later sat in awe of the work being carried out by the NIH. There were a few tears, too, as Dr. Collins told the story — his own voice wavering briefly — of a two-week-old infant whose life was saved by NIH researchers.

With a professional resume like his, there was a lot Dr. Collins could call on to impress in his presentation. And impress he did. But he saved his best moment for an unexpected addendum, reaching behind the stage curtain for a double-helix emblazoned acoustic guitar named Rosalind (in honor of Rosalind Franklin), and putting the strap over his shoulder.

Collins and Rosalind, his acoustic guitar.

“I thought I’d wind this up with a silly song about the student experience,” Dr. Collins said, then launched into a modified version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” The tune was the original, but the lyrics were self-penned and uproariously funny to reflect the life-history of an NCSSM student and researcher. “I learned so many things, though I know, I’ll mostly never use them,” he sang. “Some of the courses that I took were required, I didn’t get to choose them/You will find that to survive, it’s best to play the doctrinaire way/And so, I knuckled down, and did it their way.” The entire auditorium rose to their feet with the last note in appreciative applause. 

“He is a legendary scientist, yet amazingly accessible on a personal level,” said NCSSM’s Dean of Science, Dr. Amy Sheck, who shared an evening meal with Dr. Collins, his family, and her fellow colleagues, during which Collins again easily impressed with his breadth of professional experience and homespun tales from rural Virginia, including a chance encounter in his boyhood home with a very young Bob Dylan.  

“I hold close to my heart his visit,” Sheck said, “as the high point of my career at NCSSM.”

Khanh Le, a junior from Shallotte, North Carolina, in Dr. Heather Mallory’s anatomy class, perhaps spoke for the entire student body as he welcomed Dr. Collins during his afternoon tour of NCSSM’s learning spaces. Standing by his desk, Khan explained to Dr. Collins the focus of the course’s instruction — which included studies of the heart’s function — then admitted something which many were likely experiencing. “My heart,” Khan said, “is racing now.”

For all the facts and figures, for all the accomplishments and stories of perseverance, Dr. Collins’ most lasting advice to the students may have been this: “Be grateful every day that you are here at this remarkable school and live at such an amazing time in science — because that’s what this is.”

Watch the video of Dr. Collins’ presentation to NCSSM students.