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A Champion for Better Health

From participating in neurological research to creating scholarships for medical students, 2024 Ragen Volunteer Service Award recipient Dixie Wilson and her husband Steve are all in.


“What I’ve gotten back over these 20-plus years is exponentially greater than what I’ve given,” says Dixie Wilson.

The faculty and staff who have worked with Wilson over the two decades of her involvement with UW Medicine might disagree. This spring, Wilson’s many contributions — as a donor, volunteer and study participant — are being recognized with the 2024 Ragen Volunteer Service Award.

Named for the late Brooks G. Ragen, the Ragen Award honors volunteers who have made outstanding contributions toward advancing the mission of UW Medicine. To hear Wilson — a “very proud alum” — tell it, the honor is all hers.

“I’m grateful to be associated with UW Medicine, a world-class educational, clinical and research institution,” says Wilson, whose contributions to Alzheimer’s research at UW’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center are driven by personal experience. Her father, Claude Yount, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the late 1990s, as were his four siblings.

“That was when I contacted the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, where they began the Yount Family Genetic Study,” says Wilson. The Yount Family study is part of the Center’s long-running Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study, a large-scale research undertaking that continues to generate new findings that improve understanding, detection and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

"So many of us are incredibly fortunate to have this expertise available to us. I want to work with UW Medicine to make sure all communities have that same access."

“As a study participant, I’ve found myself getting much more invested in research about Alzheimer’s,” Wilson says. In addition to her participation in the ACT study, she served on the board of the UW Friends of Alzheimer’s research group, chairing their annual auction and raising funds for an endowed professorship. The Friends of Alzheimer’s Research Professorship in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, currently held by Elaine Peskind, MD, was established in the early 2000s.

“At that point,” Wilson says, “I was all in.”

Inspired by innovative research

As a volunteer and study participant at UW Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Wilson worked closely with Thomas Grabowski, MD, the center’s director. Grabowski’s research has led to diagnostic tools that were unheard of 20 years ago, when Claude Yount’s diagnosis could only be confirmed via autopsy.

Now, thanks to advances from the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, the disease can be diagnosed much sooner, using blood panels and memory tests. There is also work on the horizon that could use early diagnoses to stop cognitive symptoms before they start.

Since beginning her work with Alzheimer’s research 20 years ago, Wilson has found other areas at UW Medicine that inspire her. Her interest in the brain led her to the Neurosciences Institute (NSI), specifically Richard Ellenbogen’s, MD, FACS, work with traumatic brain injury. “He’s a mentor to me, and I’m passionate about his work,” Wilson says. She’s also inspired by Bay Leslie-Mazwi’s, MD, work on critical care neurology, also at NSI, as well as research into the links between ophthalmology and Alzheimer’s, done by Aaron Lee, MD, and Cecilia Lee, MD, MS.

More recently, Nora Disis’s, MD, research at the Cancer Vaccine Institute drew Wilson’s attention with its immense promise. “I would never have thought we could use the words ‘cancer’ and ‘vaccine’ together in the same sentence, but that’s exactly what’s taking place,” Wilson says.

Learn more about UW Medicine’s cancer vaccine research >> Learn more

An advocate for access

Another of Wilson’s priorities is supporting the education of future physicians. Dixie and her husband Steve created a research fellowship that supports UW student-athletes interested in attending medical school. The Wilsons worked with Stanley Herring, MD, co-founder of The Sports Institute, who established the fellowship.

“The program has been extraordinarily successful,” she says, “and we have so appreciated being a part of it and getting to know the students and their amazing stories.”

If those student-athletes choose to attend the UW School of Medicine, they might come across Wilson again. The Steve and Dixie Wilson Endowed Scholarship in Medicine supports the next generation of doctors by easing the financial burden of medical school. The scholarship grew out of Wilson’s involvement with a strategic interests committee made up of leaders in the five-state WWAMI region (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho).

“An issue that was brought to my attention over and over again, and that I’m still passionate about, is advocacy towards access,” she says. “Primary care residents often find themselves needing to select a specialty field or practice in a larger city in order to pay off their loans, which severely impacts our underserved rural communities in the WWAMI region.”

Wilson’s commitment to increasing health equity for underserved communities comes in part from her experience with UW Medicine. “So many of us are incredibly fortunate to have this expertise available to us,” she says. “I want to work with UW Medicine to make sure all communities have that same access.”

Receiving the Ragen Volunteer Service Award is, for Wilson, an opportunity to get others to see what inspires her.

“Being involved with UW Medicine in so many areas has opened my eyes to how far we’ve come, where we are today and the possibilities the future holds,” she says.

Written by Alex Israel