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Yale School of Medicine prepares to welcome its 19th dean

Yale College alumna Nancy Brown has been chair of medicine at Vanderbilt

Nancy Brown takes office as dean on February 1. Her early priorities include improving the work climate at the School of Medicine, exploring new opportunities to develop physician-scientists, and supporting Yale’s strategic plan for science.
Photo by Robert A. Lisak
Dean Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown takes office as dean on February 1. Her early priorities include improving the work climate at the School of Medicine, exploring new opportunities to develop physician-scientists, and supporting Yale’s strategic plan for science.

Nancy J. Brown, MD, has been appointed the next dean of Yale School of Medicine (YSM), effective February 1, 2020.

Brown, who is in line to be the 19th dean of the medical school and first woman to hold the post, joins Yale from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where she is Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine. A 1981 alumna of Yale College, where she majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Brown earned her medical degree at Harvard University. After completing her residency in internal medicine and fellowship in clinical pharmacology at Vanderbilt, she joined the faculty there in 1992.

The path to leadership that Brown followed at Vanderbilt reflects her passions for pursuing research and nurturing the next generation of physician-scientists. She was chief of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, which is part of both a basic science department (pharmacology) and a clinical department (medicine).

She served as associate dean for clinical and translational scientist development, establishing the Elliot Newman Society to support the development of physician-scientists, before becoming chair of medicine in 2010. She also co-founded the Vanderbilt Master of Science in Clinical Investigation program to train investigators in patient-oriented research.

Under her stewardship, Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine, which today has more than 900 faculty members and 13 academic divisions, thrived. In addition to increasing the number of faculty by almost 30% during her tenure as chair, she recruited eight division directors, including four women, and increased the proportion of trainees and faculty from groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine.

She expanded mentorship resources for trainees and faculty immersed in research and established a career development program for faculty focused on clinical care. Research funding overall in the department increased by 56% and funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) went up by 47%. Clinical activities also experienced an upswing, with outpatient visits growing by 59% and admissions by 25%.

An interest in how things work sparked Brown’s desire to study medicine during her undergraduate days at Yale. “You follow your questions where they take you,” she says of her decision to specialize in clinical pharmacology. Her curiosity about the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, which regulates blood pressure, led to discoveries on how that system affects glucose homeostasis as well as fibrinolysis (the breakdown of fibrin clots that result from coagulation); the cardiovascular and renal effects of ACE inhibitors and other drugs used to control blood pressure; and the mechanisms of angioedema (a swelling under the skin or mucous membranes). Her research program has been continuously funded by the NIH since 1993. On the clinical side, she has had a long career treating patients with resistant hypertension, including those with such secondary causes of the condition as adrenal tumors and renal vascular disease.

Brown’s appointment followed an extensive search initiated by President Peter Salovey, PhD ’86, that was undertaken by a committee chaired by Lynn Cooley, PhD, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, C.N.H. Long Professor of Genetics, and professor of cell biology and of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; and composed of diverse faculty and representatives from across the School of Medicine, the university, and Yale New Haven Health. “It was clear to me from the search committee that the members are passionate about making Yale a better place,” Brown says.

As to why she set her sights on becoming dean, Brown says: “Many people have given to me in my career. Medicine faces a number of challenges that I would like to help address.” As a physician-scientist, Brown is well aware of the pressures of pursuing increasingly competitive grant funding and the growing demands and financial pressure of providing clinical care, which she believes have affected the way medical students and residents are trained. Her vision is to “return joy to the work of academic medicine.”

Although still in what she terms the “early stages of the diagnostics” at Yale, she would like to explore opportunities to develop physician-scientists who bridge discovery and patient care, grow the medical school’s research portfolio in support of the university’s strategic plan for science, and focus on improving the work climate at YSM, which will be an early priority. “I think we need to stick to some fundamental values and goals,” she says, “and that requires creativity to do within the current constraints.”