Meet College of Sciences Alumnus Gerald W. Staton Jr., Professor Emeritus at Emory University

Advice to students: Work hard but take time to develop your social side, and have fun

The medical training of Gerald W. Staton Jr. had its roots in the B.S. in Chemistry degree he received from Georgia Tech in 1972. Prior to enrolling in Georgia Tech, Staton attended Gainesville High School, in Gainesville, Georgia. Staton is now an emeritus professor of medicine at Emory University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. 

What attracted you to study in Georgia Tech?

I felt that Georgia Tech was the institution of highest learning in Georgia. My goal was medical school, but also wanted to study chemistry. If medical school didn’t work out, I would be on the path toward an advanced degree.

My dad went to the University of Georgia. Perhaps my choice was a bit of rebellion. 

At Georgia Tech, I was challenged to learn at an accelerated rate, something that became very important when I got to medical school. I’ve often likened the flow of information at Tech as a garden hose, while medical school was a fire hose. I was prepared for that fire hose.

Tech taught me how to think and how to study. I learned a lot about myself and grew as a person, academically and socially. I learned it was possible to work hard and have fun, too.

What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?

The most vivid memory from Georgia Tech was finding other people like me. I had been a bit of a loner in high school. I found many peers who were smart, social, and accepting of me as a person. Through my new friends, I was accepted and nurtured into becoming a better student and a better person.

How did you get to your current position?

After Tech, I graduated from the Medical College of Georgia, summa cum laude, in 1976. I did my internship and residency in Internal Medicine at Stanford Univerisity and my fellowship in Pulmonary Medicine at Harvard University. I came to Emory University in 1981 as an instructor and rose to the rank of Professor of Medicine. I was recently promoted to Professor Emeritus.

My Tech education was one key to my success in medicine. Although actual medical knowledge was important, the learning and thinking skills I acquired at Tech were more important. While at Tech, I began learning about people from all backgrounds and cultures, something that is important to a physician. At Tech I also had the opportunity to learn leadership skills by taking leadership positions.

It is hard after all these years to identify specific classes or professors. I remember Physical Chemistry, however.  At the beginning, I really struggled with Physical Chemistry, but I kept working at it and finally things fell into place and I began to understand. The subject taught me that one of the greatest pleasures in life is to come up against something difficult, struggle with the problem, and then ultimately overcome it.

What do you like most about your current job? The least?

I most enjoy taking care of patients, teaching students and young doctors, and finding new ways of diagnosing and treating diseases. I least like paper work and dealing with “human resource” issues.

What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?

The greatest challenge has been finding what I’m good at and what I don’t do well. I have been put in positions for which I didn’t not have the skills, realized my lack of skills, and moved out into positions that were consistent with my skill set. I was learning from failures and moving on. One thing I learned at Tech was resilience, being able to pick myself up from failure and moving on.

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

Being able to help so many patients and having the opportunity to work with so many students and young doctors have been the greatest pleasures. Having students come back and tell me that they remember as important something that I said is particularly gratifying.

If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?

I am convinced that my purpose in life was and is to be a phyiscian and teacher of medicine.

If medical school was not an option, I would have gotten a chemistry Ph.D. and might have gone into industry. But I like working with people and teaching, so I think I would have become a professor of basic science and spent my years doing research and teaching students, just like some of my chemistry professors at Tech.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech? 

Fasten your seat belt, because it’s a wild ride that you are starting. Study hard and find out how you learn best and most efficiently. Your way of learning may not be the same as your friends’.

Engage with your fellow students through the available opportunities—fraternities and sororities, clubs, sports, etc. You will find other people who share your interests and passions, and they will make the ride more enjoyable. Work hard but take time to develop your social side, and have fun.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

I lead Christian medical mission teams to Third World countries. As I retire, I plan to do more of these trips. I also travel to Third World countries to teach pulmonary and critical care medicine. And I volunteer at two local free clinics where I see pulmonary patients.

I have been married for 42 years to the love of my life, Debra. We have two wonderful sons, Patrick and Brent, and a wonderful daughter-in-law, Ellen.

I have a 7-pound dog, Brandy, in my life who makes my heart sing. My wife says she has to compete with my “girlfriend”.

I’m a better-than-average golfer and would like to get even better as I have more time to practice.

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

My first choice would be Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Although I will meet him in heaven, the chance to meet him in person here would be an occasion beyond imagination. I have read his words, but the opportunity to discuss the meaning of his words would be incredible.

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  • Gerald Staton (standing at right) teaching pulmonary and critical care medicine at Black Lion Hospital in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, in March 2016

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