Last Lecture 2022: A lucky guy finds his ikigai
Published on Monday, May 2, 2022
By: Karen Bascom
Dr. John Hall has always had a bit of luck with him, starting with his dog, Lucky, who followed him around his childhood home in Milo, W.Va. – population six.
Since then, Hall has learned more about luck. How it finds you, how to make it, and how to use it.
Hall, the Arthur C. Guyton Professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, talked about his luck and life at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s 2022 Last Lecture April 26 in the School of Medicine.
Based on the format popularized by Carnegie Mellon University’s Dr. Randy Pausch, UMMC’s Last Lecture allows educators to impart the lessons they would give if they knew it was their last opportunity. Students choose the speaker for the annual event, which is sponsored by the Office of Development, the Student Alumni Representatives (STARS) and the Associated Student Body.
A preeminent scholar in cardiovascular disease, hypertension and obesity, Hall told students he wouldn’t give “another lecture on acid-base balance or renal physiology.” Instead, he discussed the basis for his success as a scientist and educator.
“Seek the best teachers and mentors throughout your life,” he said. “Lifelong learning should be an aspiration for everyone.”
Hall joined UMMC in 1974 after earning a PhD from Michigan State University because Dr. Arthur Guyton, then chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at UMMC, cultivated an environment that encouraged learning through research, Hall said.
Hall drove his Volkswagen to Jackson, planning what he thought would be a two-year stay. Instead, he joined the UMMC faculty.
“I had a number of offers to go other places…but every time that I interviewed somewhere else, I couldn’t find something better than here in Mississippi in terms of the research program,” he said.
In 1989, Vice Chancellor Norman C. Nelson asked Hall to apply for the soon-vacant physiology chair following Guyton’s retirement announcement.
“Following Dr. Guyton would be a lot like following Bear Bryant at Alabama [as head football coach],” Hall told Nelson. Nevertheless, he applied for the job and received the offer, an example of what Hall considers the “luck factor.”
“It’s important to feel lucky,” Hall said. “And I’m not talking about the kind of lucky you think about when you think about a four-leaf clover or a horseshoe.”
Instead, “Positive expectations usually create good luck. Good happens when an opportunity comes along and we’re prepared for it.”
Back in Milo, Hall’s parents said “hard work is the best preparation for good luck.” They built their luck, as well as all of the structures in town: a house, a store and a church. They placed a high value on learning and reading. His father accepted a job in Ohio, which moved the family to Smithville, population 755. Hall had the good fortune of a high school teacher, Mrs. Barrett, who saw that the three-sport athlete also had a knack for writing and encouraged him to pursue English and journalism.
However, luck can also come “when things don’t go as planned and new opportunities are revealed,” Hall said.
While studying English and journalism at Kent State, Hall encountered the third edition of the Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology. He switched his major and planned to start his PhD at Michigan State after graduation in 1968.
Instead, “a letter from the President of the United States” sent Hall to U.S. Army basic training then the Engineering School at Fort Belvoir. Another lucky break sent him to a Cold War-era defense station in Aschaffenburg, West Germany, instead of Vietnam, where most of his class went.
And, of course, there’s the luck that manifested when he returned to the U.S. and met Becky Frederick, now his wife of 50 years.
“Becky has been a rock and kept me grounded,” Hall said.
A strong base has allowed Hall to find his ikigai, a Japanese term for life’s purpose.
“If you find a vocation you love, it won’t seem like work,” Hall said.
You find ikigai at the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs.
“If you’re in the health care professions, there’s no doubt that the world needs you. We have a scarcity of health care professionals,” Hall told the students, many of whom who will go on to be doctors or dentists or other kinds of healers.
The world also needs the “test-tube doctors” who make basic science discoveries, Hall said. Heart surgery, including the first transplant conducted by UMMC’s Dr. James Hardy in 1964, is at the top of a medical mountain. It was only scalable because of base camps built by physiologists, microbiologists, electricians and chemists, among others.
More recently, effective vaccines against COVID-19 are based on decades of discoveries in cellular biology, genetics, proteomics and pre-clinical testing, Hall said.
“[The mRNA vaccines] didn’t happen suddenly, it happened after 60 years of work,” he said.
Academic medical centers like UMMC need strong research programs not just for current patients but also for future providers, Hall said. He shared a 1956 quote from Guyton: “A research atmosphere creates scholarship and leadership in a medical school, and this atmosphere creates students motivated to quest the depths of medical understanding thus eventuating in better practice of medicine.”
In his 48 years at UMMC, Hall has taught hundreds of students in his laboratory and thousands in classrooms. He’s also taught countless others around the world. Besides the more than 600 papers he’s written or co-written now in the scientific literature, Hall is the editor of the Textbook of Medical Physiology, now in its 14th edition and translated into 22 languages.
John Aaron Howell, a STAR and neuroscience PhD student, said students chose Hall for the Last Lecture for his reputation in education and research. He’s the first member of the basic science faculty to give the lecture since the series started in 2016.
“He is very well-respected in the graduate school, in the medical school, and beyond,” Howell said. “When I go to scientific conferences, attendees see UMMC on my name tag and know of UMMC because of Dr. Hall.
“He is a fantastic example to our PhD students of what it means to have a meaningful career in research,” Howell added.
For Hall, meaning – his ikigai – includes four other factors that come from outside the lab: good health, focus, family and faith.
“Faith is the hope that you can make a difference, even if you do not know the outcome,” he said. “It’s belief in yourself and in the people you work with.
Today, faith seems more important than ever.
“There is a lot of chaos in the world right now,” Hall said. “One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that even for those things that we can’t control, or that we think we can’t control, our responses really make a difference.”
Watch a recording of the 2022 Last Lecture here.