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Doctor, researcher and educator Dr. Bill Petri is a special Distinguished Dozen

Editor’s Note: For the past few months, Dr. Petri has shared his expertise and time in our paper through a weekly column, where he has answered hundreds of questions for us and for our readers about COVID-19. We were thrilled when a community member nominated him for the Distinguished Dozen; however, we didn’t want to let our bias affect our decision on whom to choose. In order to overcome this journalistic quandary, we’ve decided this year to do a baker’s dozen, adding Dr. Petri as the final installation of our Distinguished (Baker’s) Dozen.

Before COVID-19 even had a name, Bill Petri was petrified – or at least very worried. With a doctorate in microbiology and also an M.D., Petri understood better than most lay people what was about to happen. A new coronavirus that attacked the lungs had swept through Wuhan and was spreading to other cities. A pandemic was in the offing, even in the U.S. did not quite yet understand.

In his lab at the University of Virginia Medical School, Petri – and yes, his name is pronounced like the dish that you associate with research – and his graduate students began studying the new coronavirus. Trials began. Petri was studying, among other issues, a specific immune response – something called a type 2 IL-13 mediated immune response — in patients with COVID-19 is associated with respiratory failure. This was a key finding as physicians were desperate to begin to understand how the virus wreaked such havoc.

At the same time, Petri was seeing patients with COVID-19. And about that time, the communications director for the medical school, Eric Swensen, suggested that Petri write explanatory stories for The Conversation, a news website that features explanatory essays about important news topics, all authored by academics. Petri was game to do that, and over the period of a year, wrote more than 20 articles for The Conversation about COVID-19, with more than 9 million page views total.

Clearly, there was an appetite for Petri’s knowledge and writing.

It might be hard to imagine how such a busy academic could find time to also contribute to lay publications instead of complicated medical journals, but once you look at Petri’s CV and learn more about him, it’s completely understandable.

Petri, who was born on Christmas Day, 1955, grew up in the D.C. area and spent some of his early years in London. His father was a jet propulsion chemical engineer, and his mother earned a mid-career doctorate, after raising four children, and worked with disabled children in public schools of Washington, D.C. He credits his parents for instilling in their children a love for public service.

“We all learned from them,” Petri said of his parents. They lived lives of affirmation, of service to others, and of professional excellence, while nurturing four children who felt supported to make their own journeys in every moment of their lives.”

Petri graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied music and chemistry. He then came to UVa for medical school and doctoral research and study. He met his wife, Mary Ann McDonald, who was in his medical school class.

“She is the sole reason behind the success I have had as a father and as a physician-scientist,” said Petri.

They married right after graduation, in the University Chapel, and left soon for Case Western Reserve University, where Bill did his residency in internal medicine. The couple soon returned to Charlottesville, where they have lived since. They have five adult children, two of whom live in the area, including Rachel, who teaches fifth grade at Stone-Robinson; Andrew, who is completing his associate’s degree at PVCC. Two children, Sarah and David, live in Portland, Oregon; and Daniel lives in Tampa.

As empty nesters, the Petris stay busy. Bill coaches youth soccer, and he has returned to playing the trombone. He also because a distance runner, completing his eighth marathon in San Diego this fall.

Mainly, however, Petri’s attention is focused on COVID-19 research, treating patients and running his lab at UVa. He is quick to give credit to the entire lab team, especially former graduate student Allie Donlan.

“All of the work is made possible because of the support of colleagues, students and friends at the University of Virginia and internationally,” Petri said.

Petri has also found meaning in his new role as physician-journalist because it has given him the ability to serve as a public health educator. Put all of the work together, and Petri said he has the best job in the world.

“To me, I have the best job I can imagine,” he said. “I spend three months out of the year seeing patients. I get to work with post-docs as a clinical research coordinator. Every week, they discover something new.”

When an early-career researcher makes the discovery, that’s especially exciting, Petri said.

“I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than to see a researcher learn and discover and then, next thing you know, they’re leading their own programs,” said Petri.

Answering questions from readers about COVID-19 has been very meaningful, too, Petri said. He sees it a form of public service and says he has enjoyed reader questions.

“It’s just been great,” he said, noting that he understands how confusing all the scientific and medical research has been to someone without a medical degree.

“It’s confusing for me!” Petri said, adding that he likes doing the research to answer reader questions because he is often learning something new.

“I think it’s easier for me than most to go into the literature, and I enjoy that. Every time I’m doing that, I’m learning something new,” Petri said.

And while COVID-19 taxed doctors, nurses and other health care givers to an immeasurable extent, Petri said he feels grateful for the opportunity to research the disease and to help patients recover from it.

“To be able to respond as a scientist through discovery, as a physician through the care of patients with COVID-19 and as a public educator has been my greatest satisfaction professionally,” he said.

Read Dr. Petri’s next Q&A in tomorrow’s Daily Progress.


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