Virginia Tech Magazine
Summer 2008

Dean's focus clarifies future of medical education
In the 1990s, Virginia Tech and the Town of Blacksburg started the Blacksburg Electronic Village, a modern Internet communications system that connected virtually everybody in town and became a model emulated across the nation. Now, the university and Carilion Health System are looking to create the same sort of groundbreaking model for future medical schools, a public/private partnership--the school will be private--using a curriculum that will produce physician thought-leaders through inquiry, research, and discovery.
Dr. Cynda Johnson
Dr. Cynda Johnson

And Tech and Carilion appear to have found the person with the vision, enthusiasm, experience, and boundless energy to make the dream a reality in Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine's dean, Dr. Cynda Johnson.

In fact, she stood out so much that the hiring committee for the two institutions scrapped its plan to bring in three finalists for a second interview and instead offered the job to Johnson, who comes to the fledging school after three years as dean of East Carolina University's (ECU) Brody School of Medicine and then senior associate vice chancellor leading ECU's medicine-based research efforts.

"When you talked to her, she inspired confidence that we could achieve what we wanted to do," says Tech Provost Mark McNamee. "She knew where to begin and how to get things going."

No kidding.

Tech and Carilion appear to have found the person with the vision, enthusiasm, experience, and boundless energy to make the dream a reality in Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine's dean, Dr. Cynda Johnson.

Since Johnson arrived this past January, the Virginia General Assembly has authorized the school facility and research institute, final architectural plans for the school building have been set and groundbreaking has taken place, key administrators have been hired and are at work, and, most impressively, the voluminous paperwork necessary for accreditation will be ready in August.

"We're still on schedule [to open] for 2010," Johnson says. "We chose a very aggressive timeline for accreditation to catch the enthusiasm."

The hectic lifestyle and long work hours are nothing new for Johnson, who, along with her husband, Dr. Bruce Johnson, now vice chairman for education in the internal medicine department at Carilion, bought a loft in downtown Roanoke in part to be close to the office.

Johnson's life and background have prepared her well for the challenge of becoming one of only 16 female medical school deans in the nation. "I didn't just have one direction," Johnson said. "I had interests, but then I let my life carry me in different directions."

Born in the farming community of Girard, Kan., Johnson has always had an interest in rural medicine and increasing medical access for patients in underserved areas. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford University, studying German expressionist drama, focusing on theatrical interpretations of the French Revolution. It was hardly the standard pre-med track, but she also finished her biology requirements, just in case. She was the first in her family to attend college.

During her college years, Johnson traveled to Germany, where she cataloged teas and herbal remedies and interviewed village elders about their views on health. She married her husband while still an undergraduate, and both attended medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles. She moved back to Kansas for the next 22 years. She raised two sons--Kevin, a professional dancer and computer engineer in New York City, and Andrew, who along with his wife is a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova--ran an active practice, held teaching posts at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and helped Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia, revamp its medical system.

Johnson went back to school at age 48 to earn a master's degree in business administration, became head of the family medicine department at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine in 1999, and then took over as dean at the Brody School of Medicine in 2004 after colleagues in Iowa convinced her she was dean material.

Johnson describes Brody as a "mission-based school" with a faculty that outnumbered its students. She had to deal with a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, recruit faculty, streamline billing, and revamp business strategies to improve the school's financial standing. In her three years as dean, U.S. News & World Report ranked the school in the nation's top 10 in primary care, rural medicine, and family medicine. In 2006, Brody tied with Duke University for sixth place among primary care schools.

But it was Johnson's work helping foster collaborations between the medical school and scientific research at ECU that will be particularly valuable in her new position. "It will be a medical school with a research focus," Johnson says. "[The medical students] will be taught to think like physicians and researchers from the beginning."

Johnson already sees enthusiasm building over that combination, along with the school's plans to use a problem-based curriculum, a patient-focused method of teaching that is relatively new in medical schools. Students work in small groups looking at real cases.

"It requires a lot of continuous attention to the student, which makes it faculty or teacher intensive," Johnson says. But studies show that students in a problem-based curriculum are "happier and they retain their education better."

Both Roanoke and Virginia Tech will benefit from the school. According to Johnson, Virginia Tech is seventh in the country in external research funding among institutions without a medical school, and adding the medical school will bolster Tech's drive to become a top-tier research university. In addition to opening new avenues to National Institutes of Health funding, the medical school will also give Virginia Tech researchers opportunities to serve as mentors to medical students, Johnson says. The school will also work with Tech to open a pipeline from the university to the medical school for select students.

Healthcare in western Virginia will benefit enormously, as well. Top medical students often look to areas with a medical school for their post-graduate medical residencies. "This will really increase the quality of the applicants to [Carilion] residencies," Johnson says. And where a student conducts his or her residency is a "huge" predictor of where that student will practice, she adds.

In addition, Carilion is already seeing interest from established physicians who never would have considered seeking employment in an area without a medical school, Johnson says.

"People are just coming out of the woodwork wanting to be a part of this," she says. "I think the way of the future is a public/private partnership. We have the best medical model at Carilion and great research at Virginia Tech."

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