Ready for the Challenge

After incredible success as a vascular surgeon, researcher, and educator at Northwestern University, Melina Kibbe, MD, takes over as chair of the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.

Melina Kibbe, MD (Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care)

By Jamie Williams,

It’s Melina Kibbe’s first week at UNC. In her office, framed diplomas, photos, and some rather impressive awards still sit on the floor, waiting to be hung.

In 2010, Kibbe was honored with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by President Obama. She has authored more than 230 peer-reviewed manuscripts, review articles, and book chapters. She serves as editor-in-chief of JAMA Surgery and is a nationally recognized advocate for sex inclusion in biomedical research which has proven to be an important driver of scientific discovery.

A few things, however, have already found their way onto the shelves.

There’s the pair of Han Solo and Darth Vader coffee mugs perched next to a photo of school-aged Kibbe smiling next to Harrison Ford. She proudly shows off the R2-D2 lunchbox she was given as a parting gift by her colleagues at Northwestern.

“Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge sci-fi nerd,” Kibbe said.

Surgeon, scientist, Star Wars fan. And now chair of the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.

For our latest Five Questions feature, we sat down with Kibbe to discuss her path to this position, her goals, and the state of women in the field of surgery.

Did you always know you’d go into medicine?

I can point to three defining moments in my life that set me on this path. When I was a freshman in high school I was diagnosed with scoliosis and underwent surgery to have a Harrington rod implanted. At the time I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and I decided that I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon.

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I’d wavered a bit from orthopaedics, but was still certain I’d become a surgeon. Then, I spent a summer working in a research lab and was tasked with operating on rats, dissecting out the Circle of Willis in the brain and staining for various proteins. First off, that validated the idea that I had the technical skills to do surgery. On the research side, we were mapping the distribution of a protein that at the time not a lot of people knew much about, but now it’s common knowledge in medicine – brain natriuretic peptide. The opportunity to be involved in that work really stimulated my interest in doing basic science research.

Finally, during my first year of medical school [at the University of Chicago], the chief of vascular surgery came to give a lecture to our class on atherosclerosis. At the end of the lecture, he showed us a video of one of the most common operations performed by a vascular surgeon – the carotid endarterectomy. The surgeon dissects out the carotid artery, peels the plaque out, sews it back up, and restores blood flow. And it has to be perfect. If there is any plaque left it can embolize, causing a stroke. So, the procedure takes tremendous technical precision.

I know it sounds corny, but after we watched that video, I looked at my friend and said ‘I am going to be a vascular surgeon.’ That was my first year of medical school, and it stuck.

In addition to being an accomplished surgeon, you’ve been recognized for your research work; you edit JAMA Surgery, and even founded a company involved in device development. How do you balance these responsibilities and how do these roles complement each other?

I love the dichotomy I have between patient care and research. It allows me to be stimulated every day and to be challenged every day, and who doesn’t want that from their work?

Now, there’s a related question that I’ve been asked a lot, and that’s about work-life balance. I’d say it’s all about perspective. An outsider might say I have horrible work-life balance. Am I spending a lot of nights and weekends working on research and JAMA Surgery? Yes. But that’s because I love it and it’s how I choose to spend my time.

I talk to medical students all the time who ask if you can you have work-life balance in surgery. You totally can. Your career is what you make it and surgery has many options.

Surgery is still perceived by medical students as not friendly for a work-life balance, and it’s perceived by females especially as not being conducive to getting married and having children. I say it is. But, it’s about the choices one makes.

I really hope in the next 5-10 years we can make an impact and change the perceptions of our specialty because I’m concerned about the next generation. We have to ensure we have good, quality students who are passionate about our field.

At the time of your appointment, you were the 15th female surgery chair in the nation. What can be done to continue to raise that number?

First of all, the fact that I was number 15 and we are now up to 16 female surgical chairs is incredible progress. In 2014, the number was only eight. There has been a tremendous increase in the appointment of female chairs in 2015 and 2016, with eight new appointments.  But the overall number is still very low and there’s a long way to go.

This is not particular to surgery, but applies also to women in leadership roles across medicine, law, business, etc. I personally believe that the time of overt bias is mostly gone – not totally, but mostly. Now, we are dealing with subconscious bias; not only in how males perceive females as leaders, but also how females perceive other females as leaders. So, there are a lot of things that need to be addressed, and I will continue to be an advocate for the importance of women in leadership roles.

You’ve achieved a national profile as a champion for sex inclusion in biomedical research, even discussing the issue on 60 Minutes. What has been the recent progress in this area?

Most recently, the NIH has begun requiring investigators submitting research proposals to address sex as a variable, and they have made it a score-deriving variable in the grant application. In June, I was able to sit in on the first NIH study session with this policy in effect. It was a really interesting experience, because the reviewers were paying close attention and holding the principal investigators accountable in the applications. So, now I’m interested in seeing the reaction to that.

Finally, as you begin your time at UNC, what are you most excited about?

I’m so excited to lead this department, to be involved in continuing the growth of our clinical programs, and to provide care to the people of North Carolina. I’m excited about working with the faculty of the department and helping them each accomplish their own goals. I’m excited about the opportunity to continue improving patient care through innovation and discovery. In a lot of ways, I feel like a kid in a candy store at UNC. There is such incredible expertise across so many academic areas and I look forward to helping our surgeons continue to form partnerships and take advantage of this amazing environment.

Of course I’m also excited about training the next generation of surgeons and surgeon-scientists, and I’d certainly like to be able to play a role in training the next generation of surgical leaders.

Learn More:

On July 27, Kibbe will speak at Surgery Grand Rounds. The lecture will be held at 7:15 a.m. in the 4th Floor Old Clinic Auditorium. Kibbe will discuss her ongoing research into sex inclusion in biomedical research. The lecture, Kibbe, said, is relevant to faculty and students from all disciplines.


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