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Interdisciplinary excellence, bidirectional partnership

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2022 Issue 168 More than skin deep
by Adrian Bonenberger


Nancy J. Brown, Dean of Yale School of Medicine, discusses how its Department of Dermatology relies on interdisciplinary research to burnish its reputation for excellence as well as working with the community to address health equity.

The Department of Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine (YSM) has an external as well as internal reputation for excellence. Nancy J. Brown, MD, the Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of Yale School of Medicine and the C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine, talked with Yale Medicine Magazine editor Adrian Bonenberger about the department’s core commitment to interdisciplinary research and why holistic approaches to medicine and to society—work that doesn’t stop at the surface—are central to scientific progress.

What are some of the longer-term plans and priorities that the School of Medicine has for dermatology?

Our Department of Dermatology is among the preeminent departments in the country. Rick Edelson, MD, has recently announced that after 35 years of service, he is stepping down as chair, so the most immediate goal is to recruit a superb successor. One of the reasons the department is so strong is that Rick has developed outstanding physician-scientists who have fundamentally changed our understanding of the biology of skin and the importance of the skin in biology, with a heavy emphasis on immunology as well as the genetics of skin disease. The specific vision for the department will be set by the new chair and in collaboration with the faculty. My job is to make sure we recruit a fabulous candidate.

How did Edelson help build YSM’s Department of Dermatology’s reputation for excellence?

Rick often embedded young physician-scientists in the laborator[ies] of basic scientists in other departments. That did two things. It allowed a small department to leverage Yale’s world-class basic science resources, but it also was a forcing function that created collaborations and interdisciplinary approaches, because each of those young investigators brought something back to the department. The understanding that skin is an immune organ, for example, really arose both out of Rick’s own work and the work of those investigators, and that has implications for everything from cancer and how the body responds to melanoma to our understanding of other immune diseases.

When it comes to social factors and skin color affecting care and research, dermatology is a field where differences have been especially stark. How is the School of Medicine helping to close the gap?

I think that skin color is often a surrogate in people’s eyes for race. Often there is bias and even racism based on skin color. The School of Medicine has been doing ongoing work to address inequities in health care, but it hasn’t always been coordinated across the school and between the school and our community partners. Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, was appointed associate dean for health equity research to coordinate some of these efforts, and our Cultural Ambassadors are informing how our research meets the needs of their communities. The idea is to create collaboration so that discoveries are informed by their needs, but also can be implemented readily.