During an All-School Meeting on Oct. 18, Edward V. Nunes Jr. ’73, P’08 accepted the 2019 Alumni Award, the School’s highest honor. Nunes has devoted his medical career to developing and testing treatments for substance use disorders, including in recent years opioid addiction. A professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and New York State Psychiatric Institute, he currently co-leads clinical trials that are part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) HEAL Initiative (Help End Addiction in our Lifetime).
In his acceptance address, Nunes shared observations from his three-decade career as a dedicated physician and member of the Columbia faculty..
Working in the late 1980s at a Queens, NY methadone clinic for heroin addicts, he found that the typical client was a male in his forties, who had dropped out of school and eventually ended up trying alcohol, then cocaine, and finally heroin.
He always asked those clients how they felt when they first tried heroin. “The response was really quite remarkable. They’d say, ‘I never felt better. I had energy. I could think clearly. I could focus. I could get things done.’ Of course, this is not at all what I expected.
“There’s just a fraction of the population that is vulnerable to heroin, people who have an outsized reaction to the drug,” he explained. “It’s an inherited difference in their framed response to the drug, and they’re unlucky to have it. Their lives become devastated.”
In addition to struggling with their addiction, some of these patients were also depressed, Nunes said. They may have been depressed from early on in their lives, he said, but they had both disorders.
He joined a group studying medications for depression, and he and his mentors became interested in depression among patients with addictions. At the time, attention to depression was discouraged by most clinicians, considered just another manifestation of the addiction and a distraction from treating the addiction. Nunes and his colleagues showed that depression could be identified and treated in patients with alcohol or drug problems, improving the outcome of the addiction as well.
“Keep your eyes open for this kind of accident or serendipitous observation,” he said in his talk at Hotchkiss, addressing especially the students in the audience. “Then, go with it. Stay attentive to these observations.
“A good scientist tries to kill his or her own hypothesis. You should really be your own strongest critic,” he said.
For Nunes, Hotchkiss provided an essential grounding in critical thinking and writing. His interest in research and psychiatry crystallized then, he says. “ I particularly enjoyed English, and the faculty members made the characters we read about come alive. I wanted to know what made these characters tick. That experience in the English classroom and in other humanities courses, including religion, philosophy, and history, presented similar questions and kindled my interest. I liken this to the work I do today.”
After he earned an A. B. in psychology and chemistry at Dartmouth, Nunes received his M.D. from the University of Connecticut and then trained in internal medicine at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Boston and psychiatry and psychopharmacology research at Columbia before joining the faculty there in 1987. A longtime colleague at Columbia, Dr. Frances Levin, who introduced him at the Alumni Award presentation, described Nunes as “both innovative and pragmatic.”
Since 1931, the Hotchkiss Alumni Association has honored notable alumni with the Alumni Award. Selected by the Nominating Committee of the Board of Governors of the Alumni Association, every recipient has brought honor and distinction to him or herself and Hotchkiss through their achievements.