Stephen J. Ryan, M.D. Title:

Dean and senior vice president, medical care

Organization:

Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California

Born:

March 20, 1940

Education:

A.B. Biology, Providence College; M.D. School of Medicine, John Hopkins University

Career Turning Point:

Meeting his mentor at John Hopkins, who convinced him to pursue ophthalmology

Most Admired Person:

George Washington, for holding a fractious group together during the most adverse circumstances

Hobbies:

Reading; world travel; tennis, even though "lacking the athletic gene"

Personal:

Married, one adult daughter

The dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine, Stephen J. Ryan, has his eye on a 100-acre biotech park and building a Top 10 hospital

Stephen J. Ryan has his work cut out for him again.

Ryan, 61, was recruited by USC's medical school in 1974 to create an ophthalmology department. At the time, the school didn't have a single full-time ophthalmologist. Three decades later, the department and the Doheny Eye Institute at USC draw patients from all over the nation with its research on macular degeneration and other diseases.

Now, Ryan, dean of the medical school since 1991, has an even greater challenge: to turn USC into a Top 10 medical school over the next decade. It currently ranks 26 by the measure of federal research dollars received.

The initiative will require, by the school's own estimate, constructing four new research buildings, hiring 135 additional faculty and a capital campaign to fatten the medical school's endowment by at least $400 million.

He also is leading an effort to build a 100-acre biotech park near the school, a project that would require moving a county juvenile jail and is getting little support from county officials.

Ryan is no lone soldier this time. The school was awarded $110 million by the W.M. Keck Foundation in 1999 with the intent of turning it into a top research school. Since then, a new Board of Overseers has been recruited, including heavyweights Eli Broad, Alfred Mann, Henry Yuen, Steven Spielberg and Edward Roski Jr., among others.

Question:

Why is it so important that USC have a top medical school?

Answer: L.A. really deserves two great medical schools. In fact, it's really remarkable how underserved it is in the way of medical schools. New York has seven. Chicago has five. Philadelphia has four.

Q: So is this just a matter of USC wanting to rival UCLA, which already has a Top 10 medical school?

A: There is a level of competition, but this is not the football team. We are located in a different area of Los Angeles. For 10 million people to only have two medical schools in this county, there is plenty of room.

Q: What will improving USC's medical school do for Los Angeles?

A: Every additional scientist we recruit increases the overall intellectual firepower of Los Angeles. You just build more and more critical mass. Research is becoming more and more about teams of people working together and sharing ideas.

Q: What was it like building up the ophthalmology department, and the Doheny Eye Institute?

A: The great thing was that I was a full-time department of one. So consensus was very easy. No arguments. It was perfect.

Q: But seriously, why did you take such a job coming out of Hopkins, such a prestigious medical school?

A: The county was way behind in terms of what you would practice anywhere. But the attraction to me of Los Angeles was to have this population. And to have this amount of wealth. It just seemed to me if you could do a good job, you could make something happen.

Q: You had doubters then. How did you prove them wrong?

A: A lot of people felt that no private patients would come east of the Los Angeles River. My answer to that was, "Look, Hopkins is in east Baltimore and this is a garden spot compared to Baltimore." If you can recruit good docs, patients will be referred and that is what happened.

Q: So how did the medical school secure that $110 million grant?

A: Robert Day is chairman of the Keck Foundation and was committed to making things happen in Los Angeles. And medical research was a major emphasis for the foundation. There was a natural coalescence. I think the foundation wanted to see that they could make a difference with USC, and some very important science might take place here.

Q: In what areas will this new research take place?

A: Our strategic plan has four main initiatives: neurogenetics; cancer; transplant biology and heart disease; and metabolic diseases, notably diabetes and liver, as well as children's and women's issues and infectious disease.

Q: How important a part of this plan is building a biotech park?

A: It would provide an opportunity for USC faculty members to commercialize intellectual property they develop. It's also important in some aspects of recruitment. You find faculty members at USC or Caltech, they will bring an idea to a certain point and then their choice is to go to San Diego or the Bay Area.

Q: It looks like the county does not believe it can be done given the cost of moving the jail. Would you accept something smaller, or not contiguous?

A: I truly understand the county has very significant (financial) constraints. But we want to go with 100 acres because then we would have a biotech park we could recruit private industry too. This is also a great (economic) opportunity for Los Angeles, especially East Los Angeles.

Q: Will this effort to change USC into a top research school affect its relationship with the county, such as at County/USC Medical Center?

A: Up until the 1980s, the school acted more like a department of the county. We are striving to be a private research medical school in a private research university, but we want to continue our historic commitment to the county, which dates back to 1885.

Q: What role does USC University Hospital, which Tenet Healthcare Corp. operates for the school, play in all this?

A: It is one of our five primary teaching hospitals, which are all characterized by being staffed by our full time faculty members, having an interest in research and academic medicine and having us involved in their governing structures. But unlike other schools we do not own our hospitals.

Q: I notice you keep your office at the Doheny Eye Institute, rather than at the medical school's administrative offices. Why?

A: I deeply enjoy all aspects of ophthalmology. And this office was my office as chairman of the ophthalmology department.

Q: Do you still practice?

A: I see patients on Wednesday. It's a small practice. Patients that have remained devoted to me. It's a way of keeping a hand in, and remembering why I went to medical school, of staying in touch.

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