Kelsey C. Martin, MD, PhD, Dean, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Photography: Ann Johansson
Kelsey C. Martin, MD, PhD, has dedicated her career to solving scientific problems. Now her energy and expertise are focused as dean on guiding the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA to greater heights.
Kelsey C. Martin, MD, PhD, the new dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, didn’t set out to become a physician. Driven by her interest in human behavior, she studied English and American language and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard. It wasn’t until she was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central Africa that her passion for medicine was ignited. There, she organized an outreach program and wrote grants to fund measles vaccinations, which led to a dramatic reduction in the disease in the village where she was working. It was a profound turning point, one that led her to medical school, in a joint MD/PhD program at Yale, and postdoctoral work in neuroscience at Columbia. She came to UCLA in 1999 as assistant professor in psychiatry and biological chemistry and became chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry. Her research focuses on how the brain stores memories.
After a number of senior administrative roles, Dr. Martin was named interim dean in 2015 and assumed the role of dean in July 2016. “I view this role almost as a service,” she says. “UCLA is my community. The faculty are my colleagues. The students are my colleagues and trainees. I really care about this school, and I want to do what I can to make sure that it continues to thrive.” Dr. Martin, who recently was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, is the first woman dean of UCLA’s medical school, and she is among only a handful of women to lead a medical school in the United States. Of the 120 campuses that responded to a recent survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges, just 19 (three of them in the University of California — UCLA, UC Riverside and UC Davis) had women deans. Dr. Martin spoke with U Magazine editor David Greenwald.
As we begin our discussion about the future, let’s start with a look at the past. In 2016, we lost Dr. Sherman M. Mellinkoff, who was the second dean of the school of medicine. What have you learned from those deans who have come before you, and how has it informed your vision for the future?
Dr. Kelsey C. Martin: I never had the pleasure of meeting Dean Mellinkoff, but I was incredibly lucky to have been able to read a 1,000-page transcript of an oral history that he gave in the early 2000s. I feel that I learned a lot about what it meant to be a dean. He was very honest about the things that were frustrating to him, the things that were fun, the things that he cared about. When you start in this role, you feel like there’s so much to do. And then you read what someone like Dean Mellinkoff accomplished over a quarter-of-a-century, and you see that he did it step-by-step and that he was guided by important principles. There was a lot of principle and a lot of idealism in what drove him, and I found that very inspiring. And when I was recruited to UCLA, in 1999, Dr. Gerald Levey was dean. He built so much of the physical structure of who we are right now — Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the biomedical-research science building, the Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience and Genetics Research Center. I was appointed chair of biological chemistry under Dr. Levey’s leadership, and I also worked with Dr. Alan Robinson, who was associate dean, and I learned a lot about the UC, about teaching, about utilization of space. Under Dr. Eugene Washington, I was a basic-science chair. Dr. Washington was unperturbed by any challenge. There were occasions when I might get frustrated with something, and he always took the long view; I think I learned a lot from him about working effectively in those situations.
What have been pivotal moments in your life and your career that have prepared you for this role?
Dr. Martin: Different parts of my life have prepared me in different ways. As a Peace Corps volunteer, for example, I had to go into a village where there was no infrastructure, no institutions, and figure out on my own how to do the job I came to do, to set up a public-health program. I had a motorcycle to get around, but there were no repair shops, so I had to learn how to do motorcycle repair. I think that experience of being 21 years old and figuring out how to solve problems, that helped prepare me for this new role. As a faculty member, I’m a basic scientist, and basic science is about problem solving. It’s about gaining as much information as one can about any question and then synthesizing that information in a way that allows one to understand a path forward. That’s a great model for the role I’m now in, dealing with a large, complex organization of people. In addition, I was involved in running the MD/PhD program for eight years, and I learned a lot from that about how to work with students who have very different needs and desires and goals and also how to work with the faculty. As a chair, I learned more about how UCLA works as an academic organization.
You have mentioned your background in basic science, and that is an important priority for you now as dean.
Dr. Martin: I am inspired that we are at a place that puts a priority on basic science as well as clinical care. I deeply believe that they inform each other. In order to develop transformative new clinical care, we need to invest in basic discovery science. It’s important for us to have the whole spectrum of research activities — from the purely investigational, which provide the early seeds of discovery that are essential to future advances, to the translational. And it is important to have our basic scientists communicate with clinicians, because then they become aware of all of the biological problems that might underlie disease, and they might become inspired to identify a cure or a solution.
In what other areas do we need to put our focus?
Dr. Martin: It is important that we focus a lot of our energy on social medicine — the interplay between economic conditions and health and healthcare — and the social aspects of clinical medicine. We’re very lucky that we’re on this campus that has social scientists, anthropologists, historians, health economists. If we’re really aiming to improve the health and well-being of our community, then it is a part of our mission, and our responsibility, to understand that community and to understand all the social determinants of health. Our students are very focused on getting through school, but they also come in with incredible passion for serving the community. We must make sure that we give them those opportunities and that we maintain that humanitarian mission that they have. Our raison d’etre will, of course, always be to provide outstanding care to our patients, and so the training and support of outstanding physicians always will be a major priority for the medical school.
Each new dean comes in with a vision for the school. What is yours?
Dr. Martin: I want for us to focus on the highest quality scholarship in every arena that we work in. There are a few areas that I feel are critically important for us, and those are in what’s called precision health. How do we, in this modern world where we have tools and technologies that allow us to gain so much information about individuals and about populations, leverage that to tailor healthcare to individual patients? How do we make sense of all that information so that we can really develop a new kind of medicine? It brings together a lot of people who are here, and it’s a burgeoning field that is attracting a lot of young scholars. We’ve launched an interdisciplinary Institute for Precision Health, headed by Dr. Daniel Geschwind, with the goal of bringing together many different parts of this campus and many different departments in the medical school. That’s a unifying principle that isn’t just UCLA; it also connects us to the other UC campuses because we share electronic medical records, and precision health is largely based on data from large populations, which we can achieve when we come together as a system. I also believe we can build strength by partnering with other schools on this campus, including with our other health schools — public health, nursing, dentistry. It is one of my goals to increase our inter-professional training. We all have the same goal, to improve health, so it would be wonderful to join forces so that we can accomplish the most that’s possible, for our students and for the people we serve.
The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is among the best medical schools in the country. Where do you see opportunities for us to reach greater levels of achievement?
Dr. Martin: One thing to do is continue to recruit the best people possible — both faculty and students. To do that, we need to get better at telling our story, about how we talk about our science, about how we advance our faculty and the recognitions that they receive. I would like to create an environment here in which there is a real concentrated sense of excellence. For the medical school, that means focusing more on our research mission. I think we need to nurture the basic-research part of our mission more.
Dr. John C. Mazziotta, vice chancellor for UCLA Health Sciences and CEO of UCLA Health, has identified six research themes around which to organize our efforts: cancer; cardiovascular medicine; metabolism; immunity, inflammation, infection and transplantation; neuroscience; and regenerative medicine. Talk some about the theme you know best, neuroscience.
Dr. Martin: There will be a floor in our new South Tower of the Center for the Health Sciences that will be exclusively for neuroscience — psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery, neurobiology — that will enable all the outstanding elements to be clustered together as a strong, unified group that will inspire each other by their thinking and their research. The goal is to break down the boundaries and allow knowledge to flow and encourage more cross-fertilization. The results of this kind of interlocking research will, I believe, be extraordinary. The brain is an organ, and I think that until we start looking at it as an organ system in a more integrated, unified way, we’re not going to make the kinds of advances that are necessary to move clinical neuroscience forward in the future.
You begin your deanship as the school of medicine opens a new, state-of-the-art student-education facility, Geffen Hall. How do you envision the impact that Geffen Hall will have on the school’s educational mission?
Dr. Martin: The opening of Geffen Hall is very exciting. It really will provide a heart, a center, for our students. Before this new building, our training program was distributed across a number of locations. Now, Geffen Hall will be an academic home for our students, a home that is focused on medical education. It is a very communal, open space, with lots of areas for sitting and working and eating and interacting among students and faculty. The classrooms and lecture halls are designed as active-learning spaces, with stations for students to work together in small groups and lots of new technology for simulation and virtual-reality-type learning. It really is designed and set up for this new generation of students. It also is situated right at the southern portal of the university, and I think that’s a wonderful opening to the campus.