Q&A: School of Medicine Dean Kibbe

The University of Virginia has named pioneering physician-leader Dr. Melina R. Kibbe as the 17th dean of the School of Medicine and chief health affairs officer for UVA Health. She joined UVA in September 2021 from her role as the Colin G. Thomas Jr. Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

You've had an exceptionally successful medical career.  Would you please tell us a bit about your background and what led you into this field?

I am a vascular surgeon and researcher and was born and raised in Southern California. I made my way across the country to Chicago, where I spent a large part of my career, and then headed to the east coast and now to Charlottesville. 

What led me to medicine is interesting, as it's not the typical path of most medical students.  Most choose their specialty in their third year of clinical rotation, but that wasn't the case for me.

When I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school, I was diagnosed with scoliosis.  I had a rather severe curvature of the spine, so I quickly ended up in the skilled hands of an orthopedic surgeon for corrective surgery. That experience provided me with my first taste of medicine, and I decided to pursue surgery as a career. 

I also have a similar pivotal story about why I became a researcher.  My first experience with research was during a summer when I worked in a neuroscience laboratory.  We were working on mapping the distribution of a protein that was unknown at the time, one which we now know is essential called BNP-- Brain Natriuretic Peptide. Since then, BNP has become an important test to indicate if people have congestive heart failure.

Furthermore, as an undergrad, I became involved in discovery science and immersed myself in small-animal surgery.  I dissected sections of the brain and developed the studies to map it out – and my interest was piqued. I thought this was incredibly exciting, as when the research was published, I realized my contribution was important.

As a surgeon, researcher, editor and educator, what made you decide to make the leap to becoming the dean of a medical school?

What I love most about being a dean is being able to help other people, and leading a school of medicine is one of the ultimate ways of making a difference.  It enables me to support clinicians and faculty and help educate the next generation of medical professionals. Additionally, providing resources and assistance to investigators who are working to improve the health care we deliver gives me great satisfaction. That's why I've always known I wanted to lead a school of medicine.

You've done extensive studies on sex bias in medical research and have become an active proponent for eliminating this bias.  Tell us how you became interested in this area of study.

I give much of the credit to Theresa Woodruff, PhD, who was, at the time, Director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Northwestern University.  When I told her about some of the successes we were having with a particular therapy, she said, "Melina, how well does it work in males and females?" That was a pivotal moment, as I had only been studying my therapy on male animals, as do 80% of biomedical researchers.

I then tested the therapy in females and found what was effective in male animals to prevent arteries from narrowing again, didn’t work well in females. I discovered that dosages had to be increased significantly to see similar benefit.  Although I'd spent my entire career working on this therapy, it didn't occur to me to ask the fundamental question – does it work in both sexes equally? That experience started my advocacy in this space, and those details were reflected in my interview on 60 Minutes in 2014.

Today, most medications are still being developed and tested using male cells in a Petri dish and with male animals, and are not even close to parity when it comes to clinical trials.  This approach is causing an increased number of side effects in women, and we need to fix this.

Have you seen any indication that the development of new medications is starting to change?

Unfortunately, not yet.  Five years ago, the NIH came out with the policy that said all research grants must include sex as a biological variable in their research application. I recently published a study that analyzed whether the increased knowledge and advocacy changed anything since this policy was initiated, and unfortunately, the progress has been minimal. We need to raise awareness of this issue, and we need more policy changes.

You're a strong advocate for diversity equity and inclusion, and that's a big challenge in our society.  What are your plans to effectuate change here at the School of Medicine?

Our diversity by gender and underrepresented minorities is very good with medical students, but our numbers need improvement with our trainees and even more so with our faculty. We need a concerted effort in this area, and our actions must be intentional.  I'm planning on appointing a senior associate dean for DEI to address some of these challenging issues.  I also reviewed our School of Medicine website and asked for a diversity page to be added up-front and center, alongside the tabs for research, education and clinical.

Another crucial effort in DEI is to ensure that we follow best practices, including implicit bias training, especially in the hiring process. Likewise, one of the most important things we can do when recruiting new faculty is to institute national searches while retaining and promoting our best and brightest.

Please tell us about the research being done at UVA Health and the School of Medicine, and how do you plan on enhancing it in the coming years?

The research being conducted here is extremely high-level and is focused on developing life-changing new therapies and treatments. We will focus on recruiting prominent scientists and physician-scientists, and creating research space to accelerate our growth and expansion. These efforts align with the vision of President Ryan, Provost Magill and our VP of Research, Ram Ramasubramanian. 

Private philanthropy has enabled tremendous progress in many areas of research, care, endowed professorships, student scholarships and more. Please tell us your thoughts about how you plan to work with donors to further initiatives here at the School of Medicine and UVA Health.

Philanthropy is vital for an academic medical center to support clinical research, education, community engagement, facilities, and many other areas. We value and appreciate our generous donors and grateful patients who help us further our critical mission. As we drive research toward more discoveries, we need private philanthropic support. We can't do it with only National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of Defense funding alone.

Our leadership team and I are committed and stand ready to work closely with our donors to align their interests with the efforts and mission of the School of Medicine and UVA Health as we pursue a healthier future for everyone!

Help transform the future of healthcare by making your gift to UVA's School of Medicine or contacting Tara Hackenberg for more information.