Jeff Balser, M.D./Ph.D., '90
Vanderbilt’s Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., incoming vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, is an accomplished clinician and researcher. At 47, Balser is the youngest person ever to lead the Medical Center. He spent the past decade preparing for the role, working closely as an apprentice to Harry Jacobson, M.D., who retired as vice chancellor in June. Jacobson hand-selected Balser as his successor and, as a mentor, has placed Balser in a series of roles with ever-increasing responsibility.
You recently became the new vice chancellor for Health Affairs. Has it sunk in yet?
I think it will take a little longer. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about what this might be like because it has been discussed. The succession plan was something that Harry and I had worked on together for years. But, that said, when it actually happens the feelings, emotions are not something you can anticipate, how it will really feel.
As Dean and Vice Chancellor, how do you see the accomplishments of the past shaping your vision for the future of the Medical Center?
I want to see Vanderbilt do more things recognized around the world as groundbreaking contributions. We’ve risen to where we have the potential to accomplish what few other medical schools can, and it is our time to lead. From the most fundamental basic science to personalized medicine, from therapeutic discovery to public health and health care, we are and will continue to make contributions that are one of a kind, and could not be accomplished anywhere but here. Our DNA databank is one example, but there are many others.
This is our time. Many of us experience that unforgettable moment in professional maturation soon after finishing our education or training. As trainees, we become accustomed to having a senior person behind us, catching our mistakes. Suddenly you finish your training and encounter that difficult research problem or challenging patient – and look up and realize it is up to you! It can be a bit scary, but becomes immensely satisfying when we draw on years of training and succeed. Vanderbilt needs to take that posture. We’ve come so far and have what we need – vast resources, tremendous experience and a wonderful culture. No other institution is better prepared to tackle the problems of biomedical science and health care than us. Future generations are depending on us.
As an M.D./Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, did you ever think you would be dean some day?
There were times as a student where I interacted with [then Dean] John Chapman and thought what he did would be tremendously exciting. I couldn’t imagine one day I’d get to do the job. It crossed my mind, but I didn’t set out to become a dean. Like most people, my career goals evolved over time.
You attended VUSM on a scholarship. How did that shape your life?
Having a fully funded M.D./Ph.D. scholarship to Vanderbilt in many ways made my career. It allowed me to invest the time to learn the fundamentals of discovery science early in my career. I wasn’t burdened with substantial debt after my medical training, so I was able to spend more time engaging in postdoctoral research training while raising a family. The scholarship made everything possible. It’s a key reason I’m so passionate about trying to raise more money for student scholarships. It’s easy to talk about impact that I’ve personally experienced.
If you had to choose between patient care or research, which would you choose?
That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! I’ve derived tremendous satisfaction from keeping one foot in both activities, particularly when one influences the other. The latest research drove my thinking about patients I was caring for in the ICU, and my arrhythmia research was driven by what I experienced in managing patients with heart disease. Now, in an administrative role, I’m committed to shepherding our programs to assure that “all boats rise” [patient care and research]. Academic medicine is a special place where the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Our educational programs must rest on that combined foundation.
What do you love about research?
Two things: the challenge of the unsolvable puzzle and the explosive impact that a single “aha!” can produce. There are few human activities where finding the answer to a question can have such dramatic impact. So much of what we experience is iterative progress – one foot in front of the other. But with research there’s potential for nonlinear impact from even a single discovery. It’s the intellectual parallel to the Olympic gold medal. With research you can always have that spark of insight that changes that game.
How do you see the role of research for VUSM?
Over time we’ve seen federal priorities for basic discovery and clinical/ translational research shift back and forth. Regardless of where the federal emphasis may be, our goal must be to strike the right balance. A healthy biomedical research enterprise has to be strong in both arenas. Doing one to the exclusion of the other is like investing one’s retirement portfolio in a single stock, or a company investing in a single product. We’ve been particularly good at this diversification at Vanderbilt, as the clinical and basic science departments have a history of connectivity. This kind of interconnectedness remains a strong feature of our culture and distinguishes us.
What are your goals for student education?
We need to do everything possible to get the cost of medical education under better control. I’m working aggressively toward enhancing scholarship support and finding ways students can finish medical education at Vanderbilt with far less debt.
A long-term goal is re-conceptualizing medical education in a way that allows medical students and biomedical scientists to manage the explosion of biomedical information. It’s like drinking from a fire hose – our challenge is to find a way to help our students take sips and not get knocked over, while also developing the platforms needed to integrate information throughout one’s career.
One of the benefits of having phenomenal health care information technology and the world’s best biomedical informatics is that we’re uniquely positioned – not just to respond to these challenges, but to lead. A key challenge will be utilizing enhanced information resources, while at the same time nurturing our connection to the patient.
What’s your top reason why potential students should come to VUSM?
When you look at different medical schools in the top 20, the test scores and other numbers don’t look very different. So why come to Vanderbilt? A huge reason is the atmosphere. With a straight face I can tell any graduating college senior that they will be happier here than anywhere else. Legions of dedicated people over generations have been committed to building our culture. My job is to choose leaders who will continue to nurture that atmosphere and ensure it is enriched for the next generation.
You’ve had a fast rise in your career. What’s the secret to your success?
I’ve been aggressive with seeking mentoring at every stage of my career. I tend to have multiple mentors and I’ve been fortunate to have phenomenal, unselfish ones. I give tremendous credit to them. I’m an incurable optimist and take the view that anything’s possible. In my family there’s a culture that “you can do things.” The notion that you cannot accomplish something is just not on our radar screen.
Have your first six months as Dean lived up to your expectations?
The biggest thing that stands out is that I’m extremely happy. You never know for sure if you’re going to love a job, but I do go home most nights – even when dealing with challenging and sometimes heartrending problems – feeling terrific. I feel at home in the deanship, as if I’ve trained for it my entire career. I come in every morning with a cell phone to my ear and a smile on my face.
What makes you happy?
Work-life balance is extremely important. With all its challenges, I love being a parent of teenagers. [My wife] Melinda and I are happiest when we have been able to help our kids work through real obstacles. Whether in sports or school or a personal challenge, participating in the full range of those experiences is a big part of the reward of parenting.
Are you encouraging your kids to go into medicine?
Gently. My girls are interested in science. My son loves international relations and politics. I’m betting he ends up working for the New York Times or the United Nations.
Do you have any unusual hobbies?
Who has time for hobbies? There aren’t many medical school deans who have high school age kids, so between my family and my work, hobbies are on the back burner. I run, but not as much as I should. Melinda bought me an elliptical trainer for my birthday. I think she’s trying to tell me something.