Nancy J. Brown, MD Chair and Physician-in-Chief Department of Medicine Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Nancy J. Brown knows a little something about teamwork. While earning her undergraduate degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, Brown was part of the university’s elite rowing team.
Interested in science, she used a practical method to select her specific degree track. “It was the biology major with the fewest laboratory requirements so I could go row,” she admitted with a laugh.
It turns out the lessons learned on the water have proven to be as valuable as those taught in the classroom.
After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Brown, who married Nashvillian Andy May, matched at Vanderbilt for her Internal Medicine training. “It’s been a great place to have a career,” she stated simply.
And what a career it has been so far. In 2010, she became just the eighth chair of the Department of Medicine … and the first female to hold this important leadership position.
In her current role, Brown truly relishes the teamwork that is an integral part of the Vanderbilt philosophy. “It’s rare to have an environment where excellence in patient care and in research coexist in such a collaborative, energetic and innovative culture,” she said.
“I am passionate about discovery and innovation. What sets an academic medical center … and Vanderbilt in particular … apart is our ability to always ask ‘why?’ Whether it is discovering the mechanism of a disease or creating better systems to improve the quality of our patient care, we can make change,” Brown said.
She is also energized by the opportunity to be involved in the many different aspects of academic medicine. “As a physician, I am privileged to work with patients to help them be as healthy as they can be and to stand by them when we reach the limits of medical care,” she said. As a scientist with a lab focused on the prevention of heart disease, Brown continued, “I have the opportunity to ask questions and to make discoveries. As both a physician and scientist, I am constantly working with young people who are in training, but who also educate me. Now, as chair, I have the ability to shape how we, as a department, do all of these things — patient care, research, education.”
She is also very mindful of the issues facing medicine today … from the need for additional discovery to unlock disease mechanisms to the financial constraints facing the nation to the growing healthcare needs of an aging, and generally sicker, population. “We will need to deliver better quality healthcare for more people for less money,” Brown said of addressing the challenges.
“We must continue to realize, measure and publish outcomes of systems-based improvements in clinical care,” she stated. “With our collaborative, problem-solving culture and our state-of-the-art electronic medical record, we have the opportunity to design systems that will not only improve healthcare at Vanderbilt but can be exported.”
Equally critical, Brown continued, is the need to increase the research portfolio and to continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest minds.
Despite her busy schedule, Brown has maintained the sense of balance she found during her undergraduate days. While her off hours are no longer devoted to rowing, she and Andy enjoy being part of a different crew … their family of three sons — Dan, who has recently graduated from Princeton; Ike, who is a college freshman in Maine; and Sam, who is a freshman in high school at USN. “They have become remarkable young men. I enjoy spending time with them, and they have opened new worlds through their own varied interest and talents,” Brown noted.
Whether parenting, working with patients, making discoveries in a lab or working with the next generation of medical leaders, Brown’s advice remains the same … “Remember that what we do is a privilege. Don’t squander it.”