Larry Mimms ’76 never expected to help end the last vestige of apartheid. But years of hard work with an exceptional team—and some faith and funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—allowed him to be a part of exactly that.
Mimms came to Davidson with raw talent and a quick realization that he had to crack down if he hoped to find success among his talented peers. He was dedicated to the study of science, but he wasn’t always sure he could learn how to do science.
“Working in science is a tough job if you’re not an eternal optimist,” he said. “You’re going to hit a lot of road blocks. Discipline and persistence are so critical.”
Following Davidson, graduate school at Duke and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, Mimms started out working on HIV detection as the virus emerged around the time his career was ramping up. Years later, he had an opportunity to submit a proposal to the NIH related to viral screening in blood banks, and the resulting $7.8 million grant allowed Mimms and his team to expand their reach, working with key players like the American Red Cross to screen blood for HIV and Hepatitis C.
“We not only developed the chemistry technology; we built the instrument, which was a really big deal,” he said. “I was fully prepared for this to fail in 1999 when we first implemented it at the first National Genome Testing Center for the Red Cross, but the same test is being used today, almost 20 years later.”
As time went on, they added testing for Hepatitis B and West Nile Virus. With additional grant funding, the entire U.S. blood supply was put on brand new tests—exceptional developments that led to the 2004 National Medal of Technology, the highest U.S. honor for technological innovation, and an invitation to the White House. (Never mind that he was there for the award; he got to meet Star Wars’ George Lucas, which took the cake!)
The instruments were sold all over the world, including across the U.S., throughout Europe and in three centers in South Africa. By implementing the tests in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town, they were able to move away from race-based blood screening, one remaining trace of apartheid.
“One of the hardest things was overcoming the fact that so many people didn’t think this was something we could do,” said Mimms, viewed today as a leader in the development of point of care, rapid tests. “We proved a lot of skeptics wrong in terms of what was possible with blood screening and at the scale we were talking. We started this work at a small company, and nobody had heard of us. We came out of nearly nowhere to essentially win the Super Bowl. The NIH and American Red Cross chose to believe in us, and that was the most exciting moment of all.”
Mimms reconnected with Davidson from his Southern California life in 2007, when he read a book by Professor Malcolm Campbell.
“He’s a very special guy–a special teacher,” said Mimms. “Meeting him and returning to campus brought back a lot of memories for me. We share an understanding of what it takes to be successful in science and the value of a multidisciplinary education. That relationship brought me back to Davidson.”
Mimms also maintains relationships with some of the guys from his freshman hall. Their occasional reunions in Asheville, N.C., remind him of the place that felt like home from the minute he visited campus. He was trying to decide between Davidson, Georgia Tech and Duke, where he later attended graduate school.
“I couldn’t believe all the people who said ‘hi’ to me at Davidson as I walked through campus,” he said. “It was such a friendly environment, and I knew I was choosing the right place.”
Today, Mimms calls himself a tool builder. He facilitates other scientists and enjoys being around those who feel they can make a difference.
“I think we have to break through all of the noise in our world today so we can make good decisions for ourselves and not create chaos and untruths in the universe,” he said.
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