Barbara Stoll, M.D., dean of UTHealth's McGovern Medical School

Barbara J. Stoll, M.D.

Barbara J. Stoll, M.D.

12 Minute Read

Barbara J. Stoll, M.D., dean of the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and the H. Wayne Hightower Distinguished Professor in the Medical Sciences, sat down with William F. Mckeon, executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer of the Texas Medical Center, to talk about her illustrious career and the decisions that ultimately brought her to the texas medical center.

Q | Where were you born? Where did you spend your formative years?
A | I grew up in New York City and still consider myself a New Yorker—although I’ve adopted other home cities over the years—Atlanta and now Houston. I went to high school and college in New York, and that’s also where I completed my residency in pediatrics.

Q | Where did you spend your high school years?
A | I am a proud graduate of the Bronx High School of Science. Bronx Science is well known as the secondary school whose graduates comprise the highest number of Nobel laureates.

Q | That’s fascinating. And why did you select Barnard college?
A | I was probably afraid of going away from home. It was close enough, but far away enough. It turned out to be a wonderful school and experience, and I’m very loyal to Barnard. I mentioned that Bronx Science is known for its Nobel laureates; Barnard has one of the highest proportions of women physicians, Ph.D.s and CEOs. Barnard introduced me to wonderful professors who reflected the best qualities of educators and scholars and had a real affection for students. Located across the street from Columbia University, we had full access to Columbia courses but still lived in the intimacy of a small, all-girls school. As much as I am a great proponent of co-education, looking back there was something protective about learning and growing in an all-women school.

Q | You then went on to Yale for medical school. Tell us aboutthat experience.
A | It was a terrific experience. Yale was a vibrant academic community with wonderful professors and wonderful students. At the time I went to Yale, the medical school had no exams and no grades. My husband for many years joked, ‘Would you go to a doctor who went to a school like Yale with no exams and no grades?’ But it gave you the freedom to think broadly— and beyond medicine. I was a dorm mother for Morse College freshmen, living on the old campus in Vanderbilt Hall, frequently attending Yale University lectures.

Yale was a remarkable place. Yale Medical School required students to do a scholarly thesis long before other medical schools considered such a requirement. The independent thesis was an important and formative part of our education. Although there were no exams or grades, students still spent manyhoursinthelibrarystudying and I suspect were equally competitive as students elsewhere. There was an expectation at Yale that you would do big things in your career.

Q | You also spent a good deal of time overseas?
A | I got married in medical school to someone I met when I was 19. My husband, Roger Glass, is incredibly smart and creative, always curious, always interested in others and always full of adventure and wanderlust. He was a Fulbrighter in Argentina; lived in Argentina, Brazil, Oxford and the former Soviet Union before we got married. So the fact that we then went on to live overseas should have been no surprise to me.

For quite some time, I was the poster child of a trailing spouse. After medical school, I went back to NYC because my husband was there, and we moved to Atlanta because Roger went to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to enter the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program. My life and career have been a winding road of opportunities. When those opportunities arise, it’s important for all of us—but especially for women— to seize them and have fun with new challenges and new adventures.

I completed my fellowship in neonatology in Atlanta, and Roger completed the two-year EIS training program. We were ready for an adventure. We considered a number of different options and ended up deciding to go to the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases Research in Bangladesh (ICDDR,B). We signed on for two

years and ended up staying for four. I went from being a neonatal fellow in Atlanta, an environment of high-tech neonatal intensive care medicine, to being confronted with maternal and child health issues in Bangladesh, at the time, one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. Those years expanded my worldview and changed the direction of my career. Although I returned to a much more traditional U.S. academic career, I have always been interested in the broader aspects of health disparities, social determinants of health and health as a human right.

I look at Bangladesh as a real gift. We often said that Bangladesh was to health and development, certainly at the time, what Paris was to fashion. If you’re a fashion designer and you’re young and you’re excited, where do you go? You go to Paris or New York.
If you want to learn about global health problems, health disparities and economic development, where do you go? You go to Bangladesh. When we went overseas in the early ‘80s, few young academics left a U.S. academic career to work in a developing country. In fact, one of my mentors at Emory

counseled me, ‘Please don’t do this. You’re throwing away a promising academic career.’ And the irony is that when I came back to Atlanta some years later, he was doing global health. After Bangladesh, we went to Sweden and lived in Gothenburg for almost a year, working with outstanding scientists. We’ve had other adventures—worked in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and spent a wonderful year at the World Health Organization in Geneva working on issues of global neonatal health and survival.

Q | Tell us about what attracted you to come to the Texas Medical Center to lead UTHealth’s medical school?
A | I was not looking for a move. I had a perfect job. I was chair of a wonderful department that I had helped build over 12 years. During my tenure as chair the department grew from approximately 150 faculty to over 400 clinicians, educators and investigators. I had the opportunity to build clinical programs, training programs and research programs and to help forge a close partnership between the medical school and children’s hospital. We had remarkable growth in extramural grant funding, moving from 51st in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to the top 10.

As I said, I was not looking for a job. I thought if we had one last fling, we would go back overseas, especially since I had ongoing collaborations with people in India and in Pakistan. My husband is the associate director of global health for NIH and director of the Fogarty International Center. If I called him up today and said, ‘Let’s move to India, or Kenya, or…’ he’d say, ‘What’s your frequent flyer number?’ He breathes adventure.

After telling the search firm that I was very happy in Atlanta and not interested in a move, I was approached by a close colleague at UTHealth. Jon Tyson and I were principal investigators on the same multicenter NIH grant and saw each other many times over 20 years. We knew each other very well and trusted each other. Jon cornered me at an NIH meeting and said, ‘What if you’re our draft choice?’ And I said, ‘Jon, I don’t know anything about sports, but I don’t think that’s how you choose a dean.’ His immediate response, ‘My president would like to fly up and have dinner with you. Is that okay?’ That’s a hard offer to turn down. So, I said, ‘Sure. I’m flattered. Absolutely.’ He and UTHealth’s President Giuseppe Colasurdo came to Atlanta. I was immediately taken by Giuseppe. First off, he has incredible warmth. Giuseppe is an extraordinary guy—a wonderful combination of sharp intellect, big vision, love of people and humility. That is a refreshing combination.

During our dinner meeting, it became clear that Giuseppe is committed to the institutions he has served for many years and committed to the well-being of the people he works with. I immediately liked him, was flattered that he and Jon had visited me, but still had no interest in leaving a job and faculty I loved. Giuseppe’s a very smart guy. He called me the next day, and said, ‘We were gracious enough to visit you, the least you can do is be gracious enough to visit us.’ I thought he was right and agreed to visit. The school orchestrated a very thoughtful and busy visit. I had a great time. I was struck by the people I met—smart, committed, interested in making a difference—and struck by the collegiality of the medical school. We started a courtship during which I became increasingly intrigued by a new adventure and by the extraordinary opportunities at UTHealth.

Over the last decade, Giuseppe transformed the clinical program, more than doubled the size of the faculty, and we are now a major player in Houston as well as recognized nationally for a number of our clinical programs. He recruited new department chairs and outstanding groups. I was intrigued by the possibility of mirroring that clinical growth with expansion and growth of academic programs—something I had done in Atlanta.

Q | Why leadership—first chair and now dean?
A | I had no interest in any leadership roles 12 years ago; no interest in becoming a department chair. I was about to do a project in India for a few months when I was asked to be the chair at Emory. I almost said no, but ultimately said yes to becoming chair for some of the same reasons that convinced me to become dean of UTHealth. I was excited by the new challenge, but equally important, I said yes because there were so few women department chairs in the U.S. At Emory, there had only been one woman medical school department chair, Dr. Luella Klein. Dr. Klein, an icon of maternal-fetal medicine, was an absolutely unsung heroine, who went on to become the first woman president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. I had a sense that if a woman is asked to take on a senior leadership role and says no, the next choice is unlikely to be a woman. Being a chair turned out to be the best and most rewarding job I’ve ever had; an extraordinary opportunity to build bridges between institutions, to build alignment between physician groups, to build programs, to lead and inspire others.

Q | As you know, there have been a lot of initiatives in the last three years since Dr. Robbins arrived to further drive collaboration. That seems to resonate with a lot of things you’ve done in your past. What do you see as exciting opportunities for the medical school going forward?
A | I am excited about the many collaborative possibilities between people and institutions in the TMC and in Houston. Among our most important collaborators, Memorial Hermann has a new CEO, the first physician to lead the organization. I am optimistic that he will be a great partner and hope that I can help usher in a new era of health care/academic collaboration, so we both can do great things for our patients, for our missions, for the community. Harris Health is an equally important partner to the medical school—a venue to provide care for patients and to teach medical students and residents. These health care partners are essential as we think broadly about population health, define the population we serve, consider innovative programs, and work to make a measurable impact on their health. We also have the opportunity to build strong partnerships within the six schools of UTHealth as well as with other academic institutions, and to attain a level of academic excellence that we can’t even imagine today. Ten years ago, no one would have imagined the clinical powerhouse we are today. Leadership matters, vision matters, community support matters—people matter. You need the confluence of all of these to build strong programs. I think the stars are aligned for success at UTHealth and our newly named McGovern Medical School.

As I reflect on an academic career, early on you’re a trainee and you have big aspirations. You work very hard to become an expert, a virtuoso. At some point you have the opportunity to be an orchestra director—leader of a team, a division, a department. I’ve learned that it’s really fun to be an orchestra director. I never knew what conductors did. I’d go to the symphony and think,
‘I understand the value of the soloist, the concertmaster, but what does that guy do up there?’ Well, now that’s what I do, and part of being a good leader, a fine conductor, is finding those virtuosos, providing them with resources and allowing them the freedom to flourish, and making sure they collaborate and work well together to make beautiful music.

Q | What is your impression of Houston?
A | I really like it here. Houston is an interesting and vibrant city. People have been open and very welcoming. I love my second city, Atlanta, but I’m excited to live in a bigger city and excited by the vibrant arts community with wonderful museums, an opera, a ballet, a good symphony and creative theater. This is a big city with a small-town feel.

Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | I’m fortunate to be here. I pinch myself that I was smart enough or lucky enough to make the decision to come here. It’s human nature to worry after you’ve made a decision. Was it a good decision? People are always on their best behavior when you visit. The people I’ve gotten to know are extraordinary, even better than I thought they were—smart, hardworking, mission driven. We have exciting opportunities to build collaborations, to build programs, to foster innovation and to make an impact on the city. I’m humbled by the thought that I have the opportunity to play a small part in making a difference at UTHealth and in the broader Houston community. I’m delighted that I’m here.

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