March 26, 2010

Neilson reflects on tenure as Medicine chair

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Eric Neilson, M.D., led Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine for 12 years. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Neilson reflects on tenure as Medicine chair

During his 12 years as chair of the Vanderbilt University Department of Medicine, Eric Neilson, M.D., steered the department through a period of tremendous growth.

Clinical practice revenues increased 295 percent, and research funding from the National Institutes of Health increased 475 percent, to $135 million this year. The department's faculty grew from 270 to nearly 650 over the last decade. Much of this was accomplished by using performance-based compensation.

“Getting to a certain size and certain level of accomplishment had many intended consequences, one of them was being able to acquire and retain superb faculty, residents and fellows who want to be here so we could compete in the national marketplace of ideas,” Neilson said. “Over the last decade the pool of applicants has not only grown enormously, but the stature and quality is just spectacular.”

Neilson, now chairman emeritus, came to VUMC in 1998 after 23 years at the University of Pennsylvania. One of his first goals was to raise the department's national visibility, a mark he undoubtedly achieved.

John Sergent, M.D., vice chair for Education, said meeting that goal required Neilson to set the bar very high.

“He came into this job with a very clear idea of where he wanted the department to be and stuck with it. I think he and all of his division chiefs really began a concerted effort to take an already strong department and make it even better,” Sergent said.

“Within the next decade, anybody listing the top 10 departments of medicine in the country will always list Vanderbilt, and we'll look back and realize that a lot of that is due to this enormous explosion of growth in the last 12 years.”

Neilson has also been a champion for female physicians and scientists. He helped organize the Vanderbilt Prize, which honors women in science, and edited “What's Past Is Prologue: The Personal Stories Of Women In Science At The Vanderbilt University School Of Medicine,” the 2006 book about female scientists at Vanderbilt. Today there are 198 female faculty in the Department of Medicine; there were 71 when Neilson began his tenure.

“There is tremendous opportunity for women today in biomedical science. It is something that this department and faculty have cultivated with great success, and that I think is a wonderful accomplishment,” Neilson said.

He has also nurtured physician-scientists by helping Al George, M.D., establish the Physician-Scientist Training Program for residents committed to the future preservation of science in clinical medicine.

The program currently has 45 residents, perhaps the largest group in the country.

This year Neilson was recognized for his distinguished leadership as the recipient of the Robert H. Williams, M.D., Distinguished Chair of Medicine Award, given by the Association of Professors of Medicine.

Kenneth Polonsky, M.D., chair of the Department of Medicine at Washington University, said Neilson is recognized across the country as one of the leading chairs of Medicine.

“He has a great reputation and everyone thinks very highly of him. From our perspective, under his leadership, the research programs in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt flourished, he recruited well and managed the finances well. He is a very intelligent and thoughtful leader.

“He set very high expectations for superior performance and he was able to get the faculty to meet these expectations. I respect and admire what he accomplished,” Polonsky said.

“He's a genuine academician — a clinician, a teacher, a scientist, a leader — and he thought very carefully about how to do this job well,” added Michael Waterman, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry. “Of all the people I've known here at Vanderbilt, no one wanted to make this a better place more than Eric Neilson.”

There are few departments in a better place for the future, Neilson said.

“I'd like to think that we moved everything along in a direction that will allow others to continue building on some really great success, that the department is a fixture in the national landscape, that it means something to be at, or come from, Vanderbilt, and that people here will feel fairly treated and appropriately rewarded for the enormous amount of hard work they do for the department, institution and health care in this part of the country.

“I've been very fortunate to work with wonderful leadership in the department, and I think their effort will continue to be felt over time as those people succeed in their own way going forward,” Neilson said.