Office of Research & Development
Office of Research & Development
VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System
December 27, 2017
Dr. John Davis is a scientist at the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System in Omaha and a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Dr. John Davis, an Army Veteran, has had a 34-year VA career as a research physiologist, with a focus on women’s health issues, mainly the reproductive system, and endocrinology. He studies the physiological events and molecular process that impact the function of the ovary and its diseases, such as ovarian cancer. He’s now a scientist at the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System in Omaha and a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He has nearly 150 peer-reviewed papers, has contributed to about a dozen books, and has received a VA senior research career scientist award. He spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, with stints as a combat medic, engineer officer, field artillery commander, and staff officer in the medical corps.
VA Research Communications: What drove you to military service?
Davis: My father was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and worked full-time for the Army National Guard. He was very active in our community, especially in disaster relief operations. My older brother joined the Navy right out of high school. After beginning college, I enlisted in the Army National Guard as a combat medic.
What inspired your research career?
I had a solid background in biology and chemistry as an undergraduate at Minot State University in North Dakota and was interested in medical sciences. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I began a graduate program in physiology and pharmacology at the University of North Dakota and discovered that I enjoyed research and teaching. I earned my doctorate in physiology at North Dakota. My excitement and passion for research was firmly cemented during my postdoctoral training in the endocrine laboratory in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology, as well as biochemistry and molecular biology, at the University of Miami. The research environment at the school was very energetic and collegial.
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
I had great biology teachers in high school and college who inspired me to learn and ask questions. While serving in the artillery unit in the Florida National Guard, my battalion commander and his staff provided excellent mentoring in communication and motivation for achieving goals.
Davis served in the Army Reserve with the 331st Medical Group in Wichita, Kansas. The photo is from 1994.
Describe your military experience. When and where did you serve? What did you do?
I served as a medic in a combat engineer battalion prior to attending officer candidate school (OCS). I completed OCS and was trained at Fort Belvoir in Virginia as an army engineer officer. The training was fantastic, and I use that training in many aspects of my daily life. After completing graduate school, I served as a field artillery officer in the Florida Army National Guard. I had wonderful experiences over a 10-year period as a unit commander and staff officer. When I took a job at the University of Kansas school of medicine, I switched branches. In the Army Reserve, I served as a headquarters company commander and logistics staff officer with the 331st medical group in Wichita, Kansas, then operations and training officer for the same unit. Although our headquarters unit was not mobilized during the Gulf War, we assisted in the training and mobilization of many of our subordinate units. Throughout my career, I’ve had the chance to work with countless soldiers who have proudly served our country.
What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?
My research is centered on the field of endocrinology and examines how various hormones and other factors regulate cellular metabolism and the production of steroids. Diseases and conditions that alter the production of steroids adversely impact the health of men and women. We are particularly interested in understanding how changes in the production of pituitary hormones during aging affects ovarian function, bone loss, and weight gain in women. Some of my other studies are centered on understanding the cellular mechanisms leading to cancers of the reproductive system.
How do you measure success in your research?
One of the most satisfying aspects of my job as a scientist is watching my trainees become successful in their chosen fields. Sharing my student’s ‘eureka moments,’ when they suddenly understand a previously incomprehensible problem or concept, is very rewarding. While publishing studies is important, recognition by peers as a good mentor and innovative scientist is also gratifying.
Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?
I’ve always felt that my military experience allows me to relate more directly to patients and staff at VA medical centers.
How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?
We spend a great deal of time thinking about how our work can impact the lives of Veterans and patients everywhere. In addition to my laboratory research studies, I feel my service to research and development programs at the VA hospital in Omaha has a direct impact on availability of the newest treatments for Veterans.
Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?
Research is a challenging career with many rewards and disappointments. Maintaining a positive outlook and establishing lasting collaborations is important for continued success. Developing a philosophy and being an example of service to the profession will provide motivation for yourself and others. It’s a fascinating career and presents the opportunity to travel and make lasting connections across the world.
What’s the next step for you in your VA career?
I am currently serving as president of the Society for the Study of Reproduction. We have about 1500 members from more than 30 countries. I’m planning our four-day annual meeting in New Orleans in July 2018. In the coming years, I’d like to serve as a field representative to attract new scientists to VA research.