Skip to Main Content

A down-to-earth leader who gets things done

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Summer


Texas dean Robert Alpern, a distinguished nephrologist, takes the reins at Yale.

When Donald W. Seldin, M.D. ’43D, HS ’46, was recruiting a chief nephrologist to the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in 1987, one of the names on his list was Robert J. Alpern, M.D., a junior faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and a rising star in the field of kidney research. “He had just barely finished his own training,” recalled Seldin, a Yale alumnus who served as Southwestern’s chair of medicine for 38 years and helped build the Dallas school into an academic powerhouse. “In surveying the country, I thought he was one of two people who had what I was looking for, despite his young age.”

A dozen years later, Alpern was named dean of UT Southwestern’s medical school, and in late April of this year he was introduced to Yale faculty members as the School of Medicine’s 16th dean. He began work a month later, on June 1.

Alpern’s reputation as an affable colleague and a leader who gets things done preceded him. “Bob is an extraordinary catch for us,” Yale President Richard C. Levin told the faculty gathering on April 30, “He is a person who not only has a record of accomplishment [as a dean and section chief], but also one who has all the human qualities that make an outstanding leader. He is a highly accomplished scientist, a fabulous teacher … and a person who inspires confidence and has the support of virtually everyone with whom he works.”

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who grew up on Long Island, Alpern attended Northwestern University and the University of Chicago’s medical school before training in internal medicine at Columbia and nephrology at UCSF. At UCSF he was a solidly well-rounded academician, excelling as a teacher and clinician and launching a research career focused on the underlying mechanisms of acid-base balance in the kidney. He traces his interest in medicine to an early love of science and a desire to help others and fondly recalls the month he spent at Yale as a visiting fourth-year medical student in 1975.

It was in the lab that he met his wife and research collaborator, Patricia A. Preisig, Ph.D. They began working together when he was a postdoctoral fellow and she was a graduate student in the lab of Floyd C. Rector Jr., M.D., at UCSF; since then they have focused their studies on better understanding the role of the kidney’s proximal tubule in acid-base regulation. Their work has shown how two molecules, the Na/H antiporter known as NHE3 and the citrate transporter NaDC-1, mediate the kidney’s ability to excrete acid and defend against a metabolic acidosis.

Preisig will be moving her lab to New Haven as a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine in 2005; for the coming academic year, she will remain in Dallas, where their daughter, Rachelle, will be a high school senior. Their son, Kyle, is starting ninth grade.

Gerhard H. Giebisch, M.D., remembers meeting Alpern in the early 1980s when Alpern interviewed at Yale to spend time in the Giebisch lab. They have remained friends and colleagues ever since. According to Giebisch, Alpern has become a world leader in the field of acid-base regulation in the kidney. “His work has really been fundamental and pushed the field forward,” said Giebisch, Sterling Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, citing Alpern’s development of sophisticated fluorescence techniques for measuring acid inside living kidney cells, which previously had not been possible. Alpern also worked out key details that explain how nephrons compensate to handle an increased acid load, as might occur during kidney failure.

Search committee members said they were impressed by Alpern when he visited New Haven in February and March. “He listened effectively, he was thoughtful and he was down-to-earth,” said committee member David L. Coleman, M.D., HS ’80, the interim chair of medicine. (According to Seldin, Alpern was successful in Dallas because he cared a great deal about quality and is “thoughtful, composed and balanced.”) In checking Alpern’s references, “one of the striking things about him was that there wasn’t a single call that wasn’t positive,” another search committee member said. “The consensus was that he is absolutely fabulous. He comes across as youthful, energetic and very, very bright.” And despite his easygoing personality, he apparently has the ability to make tough decisions. “The story we heard more than once is that you go into his office to make a request, he says no—and you feel good about it. That’s a rare talent.”

Alpern said he is coming to Yale with major goals that he began formulating during the interview and negotiation process. “I sensed that at every level, from President Levin and Provost [Susan] Hockfield all the way down, everyone wants to make Yale School of Medicine better.” He said he asked Levin for significant resources to do just that and that “we were in total agreement on the vision for the school” regarding programs, space and faculty. “Without going into details,” he said, “the university was generous in its support.” Levin confirmed this when he introduced Alpern in April, noting that the economics of medical schools “are not what they were 20 years ago.”

“Medical margins are tight, recoveries on grants are not fully compensatory, and we recognize that until the school develops the kind of philanthropic base that it must develop over the coming years,” Levin said, “the university is going to have to step in and provide the resources that will stop it from treading water.”

Alpern said his vision for the school is “to have outstanding programs in education, research and clinical care. These programs should be as good as they can be, among the best in the world. Yale already has many outstanding programs in these three arenas that are likely among the best, but no medical school is perfect in all aspects. We will identify our priorities for program improvement and then move forward.”

As Alpern prepared to move to New Haven, UT Southwestern named an acting dean to see it through its coming search process for a new leader. For this post, UT chose a Yale alumnus, pharmacologist Alfred G. Gilman, M.D., Ph.D., a winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the discovery of G-proteins.

Levin praised neurosurgery Chair Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’77, who served as interim dean for the past year, for “an absolutely spectacular job” shepherding the school and building bridges among its diverse constituencies. “He brought this faculty together in a way it hadn’t been for some time and worked very hard to collaborate, not only within the medical school but also with the university and hospital, in ways that were welcomed by all of us.”

Previous Article
Homage to the crown prints
Next Article
An author and physician helps residents become better doctors through writing