August 16, 2022

Sternberg to step down after two decades at Vanderbilt

Paul Sternberg Jr., MD, is stepping down from his role as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, effective June 30, 2023.


by Craig Boerner

Paul Sternberg Jr., MD

After a long and impactful career at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Paul Sternberg Jr., MD, is stepping down from his role as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, effective June 30, 2023.

A search committee led by Seth Karp, MD, chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and Surgeon-in-Chief, will be convened to conduct a nationwide search for Sternberg’s successor.

Sternberg, 69, will continue to see patients but will also be stepping down from his duties as Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for the Vanderbilt Medical Group and Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs in the School of Medicine, and as Chief Patient Experience Officer for VUMC (CXO).

“Dr. Sternberg will long be remembered as a great leader in this Medical Center. His many contributions to our research, education and patient care are truly something for the next generation to model and aspire to achieve,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, Dean, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and President and CEO, VUMC.

A renowned retinal specialist, Sternberg is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He completed a vitreoretinal fellowship at Duke University Medical Center after a residency in Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins. In 1985, he joined the faculty at Emory University in Atlanta.

Sternberg came to Vanderbilt in 2003 as G.W. Hale Professor of Ophthalmology, and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. In 2009, he was named VUMC’s CMO and was appointed CXO in 2014. As CMO, Sternberg serves as executive director for 2,500 physicians in the Vanderbilt Medical Group. In his CXO role, he oversees key programs related to service, including patient and family engagement, patient relations, guest relations and patient satisfaction.

“In his roles as Chief Medical Officer for VMG and as Chief Patient Experience Officer, Dr. Sternberg has provided outstanding leadership for our clinicians while initiating and advancing numerous patient-focused programs that have helped place VUMC among the nation’s best. Paul is leaving behind an admirable legacy of service to his colleagues and those we serve,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Health System Officer for VUMC.

“I have been at VEI 20 years as chair,” Sternberg said. “It is a lot of time, and we have accomplished a lot. And I am very comfortable transitioning to someone to take it to the next level.”

Sternberg’s clinical career has focused on patients in the region and nationwide with age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. His leadership for the Department of Ophthalmology, the Vanderbilt Eye Institute and the Medical Center as a whole has had an even broader, far-reaching impact.

“Dr. Sternberg has been a transformational presence for VUMC over his long tenure as department chair and as an institutional leader,” Karp said.

“A chair’s chair, he is a trusted colleague who leads by example and provides thoughtful advice and guidance in response to a variety of issues. He steps down leaving the department and VUMC in a position of great strength,” he said.

Sternberg created the Vanderbilt Eye Institute shortly after he arrived, helping raise money to build the facility that opened in 2008. He has remained its director throughout his service as chair, leading a multiyear philanthropic effort that has resulted in a remarkable legacy — a permanent endowment of over $50 million.

He grew the faculty from 11 to 65 members and expanded the footprint from a single campus presence to full-time offices in Hendersonville, Lebanon, Murfreesboro and Franklin plus satellites in additional locations, including Cookeville and Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Patient visits have grown from 35,000 to 170,000 annually, and research funding has risen from 57th in the country to 4th in the country. The residency program has grown from 12 to 15 residents, and the fellowship program from one to eight members. The department also experienced growth in academic recognition, from one endowed chair to 17 chairs and directorships.

David Calkins, PhD, the Denis M. O’Day Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, was Sternberg’s first research recruit and joined the Department in 2004.

“Paul’s journey as chair has elevated all of us in so many ways. I have enjoyed the privilege of partnering with him to create the powerhouse in vision research that the Vanderbilt Eye Institute has become,” said Calkins, assistant vice president for VUMC Research, vice chair and director of Research at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, and director of the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center.

“Through the ups and downs (mostly ups), he has inspired me particularly with his joy and positive energy, which are contagious. Paul is a happy person and understands that success is about people foremost. His are tough shoes to fill, but we are all going to do our best to build upon his amazing legacy.”

His long-time colleague and friend John Penn, PhD, holder of the KTEF Endowed Director of Pediatric Vision Research, vice chair, and associate dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Medicine, said it will be hard to duplicate the successes that Sternberg has accumulated over the years.

“I’ve said many times that Paul Sternberg was genetically predisposed to be a department chairman,” Penn said. “He took the VEI to heights of success previously unimagined. More meaningful to me now, he is my dear friend, and I will miss our frequent interactions, which most often started with VEI business but always evolved into topics far more personal and engaging.”

Sternberg has received many honors and awards throughout his career including the Award of Merit in Retinal Research from the Retina Society, the Heed Ophthalmic Foundation Award, the Founder’s Award from the American Society for Retina Specialists, the EnergEyes Award for Mentorship from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and both the J. Donald M. Gass Medal and the Arnall Patz Medal from the Macula Society.

He also has a long history of leadership outside of Vanderbilt, highlighted by serving as president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and as president of the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology. He is also past chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville and serves on the Board of Trustees for Leadership Nashville.

“My stepping away is not due to unfinished business, but to allow a new leader to take VEI to the next level. It is emotional because my wife Gloria and I have been so invested in our faculty and staff. We are very proud of what we have accomplished,” Sternberg said.

“Probably the most significant realization is the profound impact on the people you have trained, the people who have been part of your team. Seeing them grow, seeing them move into leadership positions themselves, seeing them making good choices. A lot of this is like being a proud parent. That to me is much more meaningful than any personal recognition that I have received.

“And the people who have invested in us have a very special place,” he said. “We have been very fortunate to have a number of people who have become very good friends and who have given very generously to help us succeed. It wouldn’t be possible without their philanthropy.”