Arūnas Valiulis, MD PhD, professor at the Institute of Clinical Medicine and at the Institute of Public Health of the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University (VU), was the Laureate of the Rector’s Science Award in 2020 for his exceptional scientific achievements. When thanking the academic community, Professor Valiulis said, “For me, this recognition symbolises creativity and freedom of initiative. I can’t say there haven’t been obstacles on this path, but in my opinion, we are moving in the right direction.”
The professor is a well-known paediatrician and scientist. His research interests cover a wide range of children’s health topics, from pulmonology and immunology to human ecology and quality of life. In 2020, he paid particular attention to the study of children’s protective bodily functions that make it less likely they will become infected with COVID-19 and more likely, they will experience relatively mild symptoms if they are infected. Most of his publications this year are dedicated to this topic. The professor is one of the world’s most widely read and cited researchers at our university this year. According to the Research Gate, science accounting platform, he is reaching H32 and was quoted more than a thousand times in 2020.
A scientist in medicine is also a practicing physician – a doctor and a scientist. What is the difference, in your opinion?
Scientists are like children all their lives. Let us remember ourselves as a child: everything was interesting and surprising and the slightest discovery brought joy. We looked at the world with our eyes full of wonder. That is what you need to dive deep into the world of science.
There is also a lot of poetry and idealism here, as well as the rationality and pragmatism that is usually associated with science. Scientists can easily be hurt or deceived or left by their partner, because they usually do not know how to make money from science. However, scientists will impress anyone with their faith in what they do, their faith, that their research will be eventually needed. Scientists for me is like the saints of today, walking among us and with every discovery, donating hope for the society that there will be something different: better, faster, higher, healthier...
I do not have many of the qualities of the typical scientist that some people might imagine, perhaps because I am a semi-scientist devoting the time that I have remaining after my work as a doctor and my educational work at the university. Moreover, I have not yet mentioned leisure time, which must be completely given to science.
Why did you choose children’s health as the focus of your professional life?
I graduated from a school in Anykščiai, where there were strong traditions in literary science and Latin was taught as an additional foreign language. I won several national competitions for young writers. Until my last year at school, I could not decide what I wanted to study, journalism or medicine. During that last year, I was somewhat lucky. I participated in a student competition that helped me realize that the work of a journalist at that time was inseparable from ideology. This led me to put journalism aside and choose medical studies. In a kind of farewell to the illusion of being a journalist and fighting publicly against various maladies, I wrote a novel entitled “Censorship of Time”, which was published by Jaunimo Gretos, a popular magazine for youth at that time.
As often happens when one chooses a specific area in medicine, my choice was greatly influenced by the diseases that affected the people closest to me. My grandmother died of bronchial asthma, and some of my close relatives left this world because of lung cancer. I finally decided to become a pulmonologist with a focus on children’s respiratory diseases. I quickly felt that not only did I have great knowledge about all breathing diseases, but also my work was successful and gave me a lot of joy. By combining scientific knowledge and the doctor's intuition, together with my colleagues, we managed to change the concept of paediatric asthma treatment that had prevailed in Lithuania until then and to overcome this disease in general.
What were your goals after your graduation of VU?
In 1986, I graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of VU. At that time, the base of the Soviet empire was already crumbling. My fellow students and I spent most of our time on social movements, alternative art, and anything else that could make those foundations weaker and weaker. We were idealists, hot-tempered and not afraid of anything. At that time, it seemed to us that Lithuania's freedom was a more important goal than all personal ones. It was like a mission coming from our parents and grandparents or even earlier ancestors, connecting generations and giving immeasurable power. Many years of discovery and frustration have passed since then, but I can safely say that we, the young people of those times, were right.
At the age of 39, you became the youngest professor at VU at the time. Can you tell more about this experience?
It is all because of this looking at the world with wonder. The university, like the army, is a historically hierarchical structure. The opinion of an associate professor is usually more important than that of a lecturer, and a professor is more important than an associate professor is. It is therefore logical that doctors working at various university hospitals more often than others are engaging in research, seeking to defend a doctoral dissertation, and climbing the career ladder.
Right after I graduated in 1986, there were no residency studies at the Faculty of Medicine. Therefore, in order to be a good doctor, I chose further doctoral studies. In 1994, I defended my habilitated doctoral dissertation and got internships at the best clinics and job offers abroad. When I formally met and, in fact, exceeded all the requirements for the position of professor, I asked the head of the clinic if I could participate in the competition for the position of full professor. At the time, it was unusual to have more than one professor in a clinic unless one of them was preparing to retire. “Not yet, maybe in three years”, that was the answer. My eyes opened wide in amazement and I asked if I could at least try to enter the competition. I was only allowed to try, and I did. And it was successful – I won a stormy debate at the Faculty Council, where I got two votes more than I needed. Then there were more opportunities to do research although during the next years we still faced some post-soviet barriers for the implementation of West standards of research methodology and ethics.
What are your research plans for the nearest future?
We are currently investigating the links between the spread of COVID-19 and air pollution, and together with colleagues from the University of Montpellier in France, we are finalising a mobile phone application for the public for the differential diagnosis of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.
We have already launched a major study on air pollution in schools and children’s health. A previous pilot study showed that our green Vilnius is not so green. Air pollution in schools varies seven times and, according to some pollutants, up to 16 times. The incidence of chronic diseases among children also varies greatly between individual schools. We would like to expand these studies to include other important environments for children: the home environment and kindergartens.
We will continue working in other fields of science aimed at paediatric asthma phenotyping, tuberculosis, and rare diseases and we will begin new research on neonatal lung function. Under the WHO Global Initiative Against Chronic Respiratory Diseases, we will launch research on chronic respiratory diseases and quality of life and fatigue in children on four different continents.
What advice would you give for those who are considering a career in science?
First, you should feel happy while taking the first steps in exploring science. You have to meet a Teacher who will not only instil the foundations of scientific methodology and ethics, but also help you to form as a person. In my time, I managed to meet several great personalities and I would like to thank the former dean of the Faculty of Medicine, erudite and intellectual Professor Gintautas Česnis.
The next important step for young researchers is to make every effort to join international scientific networks. These can be target groups of international societies, inter-university cooperation networks, or simply virtual groups of experts. This will reduce the risk of isolation from global science.
If it were up to me, all doctoral students would have to work for at least one year at a foreign university researching a related topic. In this way, I have been fortunate to establish ongoing relationships with Imperial College and Royal Brompton Hospital in London. One of its leaders, Prof Andrew Bush, has been coming to our country every year for 25 years to carry out research and teaching projects and has become a foreign member of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.
The third rule is this: the common human qualities of a scientist are more important than the sharpness of one’s scientific mind. If you feel like you need help now, look around – maybe someone else needs your help even more.