Honoring a teacher and mentor for future doctors

Biology alumnus receives Illini Comeback Award

Robert Gaynes has received an Illinois Comeback Award for his teaching and mentorship of future doctors. (Image courtesy of University of Illinois Alumni Association.)
Robert Gaynes has received an Illinois Comeback Award for his teaching and mentorship of future doctors. (Image courtesy of University of Illinois Alumni Association.)

A distinguished doctor known for his effective teaching and mentorship of medical students has been chosen as a 2017 Illini Comeback Guest by the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

Robert P. Gaynes (BS, ’75, biology-honors), professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Emory University, professor of epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health, and an attending physician at the Atlanta Veterans Medical Center, said that it’s a thrill to be coming back to campus.  

“There were a couple decisions I made as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois that I reflect back on as being quite influential in my life,” Gaynes said.

The Illini Comeback Award was established in 1980. It’s intended to bring back accomplished alumni during Homecoming festivities to interact with students and share information about their professional experience and the value of their education at Illinois.

After receiving his degree from Illinois, Gaynes went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. Since then, Gaynes has served as a consultant to the World Health Organization and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, earned induction into the Academy of Medical Educators for his teaching and mentorship of medical students, and hosted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report podcast.

He also authored the award-winning book, “Germ Theory: Medical Pioneers in Infectious Diseases.” Gaynes will host a seminar about the book during Homecoming weekend.

Gaynes said majoring in the Honors Biology Program gave him a solid academic background in the field, as well as an opportunity to work closely with others. As an undergraduate, Gaynes and 13 other students spent an entire three semesters taking courses together under the guidance of one professor.

“We all got to know each other quite well. We learned basic biology and learned critical thinking,” Gaynes said. “It really was collaborative science. Medicine today is a team sport — you really work with a variety of allies and medical professionals. That collaborative approach is something I got out of Honors Biology.”

While an undergraduate at Illinois, Gaynes also worked as a newscaster at the campus radio station, WPGU, which he said gave him the necessary background to host the CDC podcast for eight years. Gaynes said time at WPGU helped gain him admittance into the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

“I interviewed with a woman (for medical school) and it was right before an off-year election in 1974. We somehow got on the topic of a rather controversial race of a relatively minor office,” Gaynes said. “I started talking about it and I can still remember the look on her face of utter surprise. I remember walking out of that interview thinking to myself, ‘That went really well!’ and I owed that to what I had learned as a newscaster.”

Gaynes has received numerous professional honors for his work and teaching, including awards from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, he said his work with teaching and interacting with students remains the most satisfying aspect of his career. Gaynes has returned to campus often over the years and held workshops for premed students about the transition to medical school.

“My most significant time is with students who are in their third year of medical school which is when they’re rotating through all the specialties,” Gaynes said. “Over the years, students have a lot of trouble discerning heart murmurs. I take them to the bedside and go through how you discern what kind of murmur is what. What I really enjoy about that is watching the light go on. ‘Oh, I understand that now.’ It’s a very rewarding part of my job.”

He added: “I have learned over the years that I seem to have a bit of a talent for mentoring and advising. It’s all part of the same reward I get out of teaching.”

During the Homecoming Parade this weekend, Gaynes will be joined by three of his best friends from college.

"When they found out I won this honor, they said they would come down and join me for the weekend,” Gaynes said. “It’s surprising how these experiences at the University of Illinois affected my career, and to some extent, my life.”

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Samantha Jones Toal and the University of Illinois Alumni Association