The life and career of Brian Sims, M.D., Ph.D., have both been characterized by exceptional determination and service. An associate professor of neonatology in the pediatrics department at UAB, Sims deals with the most vulnerable of patients: newborn babies. 

He traces his love of service to his childhood. Sims grew up in the Birmingham area as the second of six children, the son of Reverend Walter Sims and Bennie Ruth Sims. The reverend served as a pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in West End for over 40 years. Sims remembers his childhood as “full of love and support.” His Brian Simsparents, he said, gave him easy examples of service to follow.

His passion for caring for those smaller and more vulnerable than himself started young. When he was twelve, his mother began equipping Sims to care for his younger sisters, the youngest of which was only 8 months old. He learned how to cook for his sisters, to help them get ready in the morning, and listened for their cries at night. This training came in handy: that same year, his mother was hospitalized for several weeks and the responsibility for his younger siblings fell to Sims. 

This was a formative experience. Sims loved taking care of his sisters, and also saw the importance of the medical care that was provided to his mother. He already had a strong love for education in general, and science in particular. He saw education as a fair playing ground: if you prepared, you would be ready; if you prepared, he said, “you could accomplish anything.”

Sims attended Ramsay High School in Birmingham, a magnet high school catering to students with excellent academic capabilities. After graduation, Sims said, “I took my dream eight blocks,” and started an undergraduate degree at UAB. It was a good fit, he noted, because “UAB had all the things I needed to succeed.”

Money was always tight; finances were a continual consideration. Sims worked to pay his way at UAB, sometimes bagging groceries, sometimes doing odd jobs. He remembered that just being enrolled every quarter was its own challenge. 

Still, he kept faith that he was meant to be a doctor, which meant that ultimately, everything would work out.

“What motivated me the most,” he said, “was minimum wage. Not because there was anything wrong with the work, but because doing a job that doesn’t allow you to think can be discouraging. In jobs like that, you aren’t permitted to be creative. But it’s also very motivating.”

It was during his undergraduate work that Sims met the woman who would become his wife. She was planning to become an optometrist, so when she got into the optometry program at UAB and Sims was admitted to UAB School of Medicine, the decision seemed clear. He would finish where he had begun. 

As an undergraduate, Sims had completed a summer science program at Meharry, which spurred an interest in becoming a physician scientist. Because of this, he determined to enter the M.D.-Ph.D. program. 

“It was challenging,” he said, smiling, “but less challenging than working for minimum wage.”

After completing the M.D./Ph.D program at UAB, Sims became a pediatric clinical research fellow at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. But he wasn’t out of the south for long: after Washington University, he returned to UAB for a fellowship in neonatology, after which he joined the faculty at UAB School of Medicine. 

 Sims felt fortunate that UAB was a positive and supportive environment. It helped feed his research interests, which, from pediatrics, zeroed in on development neurobiology. He felt that one of the best ways to work in that field was by focusing on patients and their families when they were at the critical stage of just entering the world for the first time. “I wanted to take care of families when babies are at their sickest, at their most vulnerable,” he said. 

Caring for people in vulnerable situations carried over into another area that has defined his career: mentoring. Sims has mentored scores of students, many of whom are now successful doctors in their own right. 

He remembered one student in particular: Wilfred Njah, who had moved from Cameroon to the United States for school. Njah had decided not to apply to medical school because he felt he was unlikely to be admitted. Although he had a 3.9 GPA, he was worried that his MCAT score was too low. Discouraged, NJah had all but given up on his dream of medicine. 

As Njah’s mentor, Sims encouraged him to give the application process a shot. “Let’s see what happens,” he said. Njah was admitted to school at George Washington University, and completed his medical studies 10 years ago. Sims flew out to be at his graduation. 

There are numerous stories like Njah’s – students Sims has taken under his wing. In spite of the time demands of mentoring, Sims feels like nothing he does is more important than helping young aspiring medical professionals find their footing. “All doctors impact their patients in positive ways,” Sims said. “When you are helping students, you are impacting future generations of doctors and patients.”

This work earned Sims the Graduate School Dean’s Award for Mentoring in 2010. His emphasis on mentoring continues to grow. He encourages students to shadow him; a typical week involves about seven students shadowing.

Mentoring doesn’t detract from Sims’ focus on research; he feels that through research into neonatology critical insights can be added to the body of knowledge and students can benefit from this process.

But Sims doesn’t do all this for his legacy. “Legacy is what other people think of you,” he said. “Do the work. Master the space. Two pieces of advice given to his mentees are to, "Do something you are passionate about," and, "You’ll always lose unless you put in enough energy to win.”