Leaders in Medical Education: Dr. Arthur Levine, Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh

deanDr. Levine became Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in 1998. He was named the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine in 2013. He is also Professor of Medicine and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine. The faculty of the University of Pittsburgh ranks fifth nationally in NIH research funding, and Dr. Levine has been instrumental in fostering the University’s remarkable research trajectory. Dr. Levine has focused his priorities on studies that exploit the vast amount of data emerging from the human genome project and on the newly emerging and powerful technologies that enable us to visualize the three-dimensional structures, locations, and interactions of the proteins encoded by genes as they exist at particular times in particular cells. With respect to education, Dr. Levine has initiated new mechanisms designed to enhance the recruitment and retention of talented students and trainees with the goal of helping to reverse the precipitous decline across the nation in the numbers of young physicians and other health science students embarking upon substantive careers in research and education.

Beyond his University responsibilities, Dr. Levine works closely with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), one of the largest academic medical centers in the U.S., to ensure that health care delivery, biomedical research, and education—the three legs of the “classic academic stool” – remain equally strong and well positioned for future growth.

Prior to his leadership appointment at the University of Pittsburgh in 1998, Dr. Levine served at the National Institutes of Health for more than three decades, having joined the National Cancer Institute in 1967. From 1982 to 1998, he was the Scientific Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading centers in developmental biology.

How did you decide on a career in medicine?
Role model ( my own pediatrician ); interest in psychoanalysis and biology.

How did you choose pediatrics and biochemical genetics as your specialties?
Wanted a medical discipline closest to “pure” biology, not the “wear and tear” illnesses of aging. Influenced aesthetically by Rosalind Franklin’s images of DNA structure.

What were a few key steps in your journey from an aspiring medical student to your current position as Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine?
First step was engaging in research as a med student

Second step: fortunate to come to the NIH to fulfill my military draft requirement and becoming a physician-scientist by apprenticeship

Third step: assuming leadership responsibilities at the NIH ( post-doc to lab chief to acting NCI clinical director to Scientific Director, NICHD, to Dean.

What was/were the most memorable experience(s) during your medical education?
Every interaction with a patient was memorable because every human being has at least one good story to tell, and it is the aggregate of those stories that has enriched my own life.

What is the greatest difference between the clinical side of medicine and the administrative side?
Only difference is time spent at each: good clinicians have to administer their time, effort, and staff efficiently and productivel; good administrators in medicine have to remain immediately knowledgeable about clinical medicine.

Given your multifaceted research interests and duties as Dean, how do you balance cutting-edge research, clinical care and administrative duties?
Leadership has to come first; research close behind ( to exercise my passion, to serve as a role model, and to remain knowledgeable about the day-to-day challenges faced by researchers ); clinical care best left to other full-time docs, but I retain my skills as a consultant.

In a time where technology is rapidly advancing and there is a push toward “precision medicine” initiatives, what are some ways that physicians can better personalize their care strategies to individual patients and their needs?
The best “personalizing” has always been done with excellent histories ( including family ) and physicals, now adding genomics.

There is an enormous debate these days as to whether resources should be primarily allocated to fighting diseases or the distal causes of diseases. What are your thoughts on this issue of proximal causes versus distal causes?
Prevention is always the best and least costly way to deal with disease – witness the inefficiency and cost of an iron lung vs. the polio vaccine.

What are most the important facets of an undergraduate’s application to medical school from an admissions perspective?
As a research-focused school, we look for six unlinked “genes”: intelligence, creativity, fire-in-the-belly, social adroitness; curiosity, and a hard work ethic.

How do you foresee medical education changing in the next few years?
Most important change will be a curriculum that evolves with rapidity, given the extraordinary rapidity with which new knowledge is now being added to the practice of medicine ( e.g., integrating all of the “omics,” awareness of all of the antibody- and recombinant-based drugs emerging literally by the day ); and an education which is fully sensitive to the social, environmental, cultural, and economic context in which disease emerges and unfolds.

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