The new Dean sees Keck School of Medicine of USC as uniquely positioned to lead the health care innovation of tomorrow with its academic excellence and diverse urban community.
By Laura LeBlanc
Coming up through the ranks in medicine over the last three decades, Carolyn Meltzer has been part of great change, both in her areas of specialty, neuroradiology and nuclear medicine, and in the culture of medicine itself. As the new Dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, she sees the opportunity for the school to play a leading role in driving the innovations needed in health care now to take on the toughest diseases and make the system equitable and accessible.
Prior to joining USC, she was at Emory University School of Medicine, serving as Chair of the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, the Executive Associate Dean for Faculty Academic Advancement, Leadership and Inclusion, and the William P. Timmie Endowed Professor. We sat down with her to talk about where she’s been and where see sees the Keck School going.
When did you realize you wanted to go into medicine?
I was good at math and science and from high school on I was always intrigued with the brain — how it works, the connections between biology, neurobiology and our cognitive selves. So, I thought I would become a scientist. My dad, a Greek immigrant, would always say “consider medicine.” I had worked in many laboratories and knew I was excited about research. But I thought, “What if I turn out to be a terrible doctor?” Still, secretly I let myself think about it. In college I got involved in a group called Women in Medicine where I was exposed to speakers who were physicians and women role models and decided that was the way to go.
What drew you to neuroradiology, medical imaging focusing on abnormalities of the brain, spine, head, and neck?
When I did my clinical rotation in neurology at medical school, I was with a chief resident at the county hospital and all he wanted to do was go look at the imaging. He kept saying, “There are so many cool things. And really, we can’t diagnose a lot without the imaging.” Then I did some research in neuroimaging, in PET imaging, and thought, “This is what I want to do.” The problem solving, the spatial piece, the technology – neuroradiology combines all of it. I love technology and being challenged with things innovating constantly.
You’ve mentored more than 70 undergraduate and graduate students. Why is mentoring important to you and what do you gain from it?
I was a first-generation college and medical student. I had no idea what I was doing. I had people who spent time with me, supported me, who taught me things that other students were much more prepared for. And that’s had such an impact on my life as well as my career. For me, it’s about giving back. But I also feel I continuously learn from my mentees, the questions they ask, which helps me evolve in how I approach them.
How has your experience coming up through the ranks in the medical field informed your approach to creating a culture of diversity, inclusion and equity?
When I went to medical school, only about a third of my class were women. And there was this deeply embedded culture, of very traditional, systemic, second-generation gender bias. Not to say we didn’t have a lot of really supportive people. But basically, there was a masculinity in all of the terminology, how strong you could be, how tough you could be. As I got more comfortable with who I was in medicine and what I was pursuing, I was more able to be my authentic self. And that’s really important. I think with folks who are identified with groups that are historically underrepresented in medicine, there’s this sense of code switching where you have to be a certain self at work and then you can be more comfortable at home. Considering that – is this an institution where people feel like they can be their authentic selves, where they feel like they belong – is part of the inclusion piece, of creating an inclusive climate.
What three words best describe your leadership style?
Collaborative — I’m not afraid to make decisions, but I really want a lot of input. I know I’ll make better decisions if I have a diverse team of people who bring different experiences and feel comfortable speaking up. Integrity — values-based leadership is really important to me. As a leader you need to know where your own red line is, your own sense of what’s right and wrong, to ensure the decisions you make are true to it. Finally there’s a servant aspect. Servant leadership means when you agree to lead, you agree to serve others.
What excites you most about your new role as dean here?
The opportunity for positive impact. The people here are incredible. Together with the investments and the strategic focus that President Folt has set forward with Steve Shapiro, there’s an extraordinary opportunity for us, uniquely as an institution, to address some complex problems in health care. Our connection with the community in one of the most diverse urban areas in the world allows us to work with those we serve to find solutions to the tough problems – improving treatments for complex disease, mitigating the effects of climate change,
Imaging is not only your vocation – it’s also your art and your work has been featured in about 60 exhibitions in the US and Europe. Has it influenced the way you approach medicine or research?
Obviously, it’s related in terms of the medium, but I think it’s more about spending time doing something separate from medicine. Also feeling comfortable showing my work and saying, “Yes, I’m a physician. Yes, I’m a photographer.” I don’t have to be one or the other. I’ll tell you a funny story — I was once on a flight to a medical meeting in Beijing and I had brought my tripod, all my equipment. The flight attendant helped me put my tripod in the bin and he said, “Oh, are you a photographer?” I said, “Yes.” And we chatted a little bit about photography. Then somebody got sick on the plane, and they called for a doctor, and I got up and he said, “I thought you were a photographer.”
Tell us about your family. I understand you’re a dog person – and that one of them can read!
My husband and I have four rescue dogs. We’ve been doing rescue work for a long time. Neither of us has the ability to say no to the other when one wants to bring an animal home. I’ve had two therapy dogs and worked with them in all kinds of settings – a school for the blind, children’s hospitals, nursing homes. Library programs have been particularly rewarding. It’s easier for a child to feel comfortable reading to a furry cuddly dog than to an adult who may be correcting them. So, I always say, “My dog can read, so do you want to read with him?” And they’ll read together. But COVID made my therapy dog fat and lazy. He couldn’t go into libraries for two years. Now he just wants to lie on the couch.