Trail-blazing neurosurgeon-scientist Dr. Linda Liau takes helm of UCLA Neurosurgery

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Dr. Linda Liau, an internationally renowned neurosurgeon and researcher, has been named chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Chosen after a national search, Liau had been serving as interim department chair since January 2017.

Widely respected for her scientific brilliance, surgical skill and compassion for her patients, Liau has devoted the past 20 years to developing and refining innovative treatment strategies for tackling glioblastoma, the most aggressive and lethal type of brain tumor.

Her research has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the past two decades, and she has authored over 150 research articles, along with several book chapters and textbooks. Liau has been the lead investigator on several novel clinical trials for brain cancer patients, and invented one of the first personalized brain cancer vaccines -- an innovative experimental therapy that triggers the patient’s immune system to fight off his or her remaining cancer cells. The custom vaccine targets cells too miniscule to detect under a microscope—yet still powerful enough to enable the tumor to return.

“I have a huge drive to prove that things that seem impossible can actually work,” said Liau. “When I first started working on brain tumor immunotherapy, everyone told me that you can’t mount an immune response in the brain. Now we know that’s not true.”

Clinically, Liau is an internationally recognized expert in intra-operative brain mapping and complex brain tumor surgery, attracting patients from all around the world.

In a field dominated by men, Liau is only the second woman to chair an academic department of neurosurgery in the United States.

“When I started medical school, people told me that women shouldn’t be neurosurgeons, because it’s too challenging of a profession,” she added. “It’s been very fulfilling for me to break these stereotypes.”

Buoyed by Liau’s leadership in the brain tumor field and her success in extending the lives of glioblastoma patients, the National Cancer Institute recently awarded her and her team an $11.4 million specialized program of research excellence (SPORE) grant for brain tumor studies at UCLA. Focused on translational research, which converts lab discoveries into new treatments, the NCI has only designated five of these centers in the country.

“A surgeon-scientist has the advantage of observing things in patients or in the operating room and then going back to the lab to test out different hypotheses,” said Liau. “The possibility of making new discoveries in the laboratory based on clinical observations (and vice versa) is what’s really exciting about translational research.”

In addition to her research and surgical caseload, Liau directs a clinical team of over 50 neurosurgeons, neuroscientists, residents, fellows, and other specialists in the UCLA Department of Neurosurgery, one of the world’s leading centers for neurosurgical research, diagnosis and treatment.

Since 2013, she has co-led the Neuroscience research theme at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where her efforts have played an instrumental role in developing a strong interdepartmental research program.

Liau has been the editor-in-chief for the Journal of Neuro-Oncology for the past 10 years and is a member of numerous prestigious professional organizations. She was the first woman president of the Western Neurosurgical Society (WSN), and is currently on the nominating committee for the American Association of Neurological Surgery (AANS) and a director for the American Board of Neurological Surgeons (ABNS).

She completed her undergraduate education at Brown University, with a double major in Biochemistry and Political Science. After earning her M.D. degree from Stanford University, she pursued her residency in neurosurgery at UCLA. She has a Ph.D. degree in Neuroscience from UCLA and a master’s in business administration (M.B.A.) from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.