Dr. Kelsey Martin, 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 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 number of those sickened in the village where she worked. It was a profound turning point, one that led her to medical school, in a joint M.D./Ph.D. program at Yale, and postdoctoral work in neuroscience at Columbia.
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. For this edited interview, she spoke with U Magazine editor David Greenwald. (Read the entire interview.)
What have been pivotal moments in your life and your career that have prepared you for this role?
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 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 M.D./Ph.D. 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.
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?
It is important that we focus a lot of our energy on social medicine — the interplay between economic conditions and health and health care — 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?
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 health care 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.
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?
The opening of Geffen Hall is very exciting. It really will provide a heart, a center, for our students. Before this new building [opened], 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.