Alex Sundermann (G1)
October 25, 2016

Our new chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Ronald D. Alvarez, has recently come to us from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  Dr. Alvarez has established a successful career as a physician-scientist in the field of gynecologic oncology and is considered a leading expert in gene therapy for ovarian cancer and DNA based vaccines for cervical cancer.  Within the first weeks of his arrival, Dr. Alvarez graciously took the time to sit down for an interview with MSTP student Alex Sundermann (G1) to discuss his career path, his goals for Vanderbilt's OB/GYN department, and advice for young physician-scientists.

Alex: I saw in a past interview with Onc-Live that you describe yourself as an "accidental academician."  How did you become interested in research and education, and what led to it becoming such a substantial part of your career?

Alvarez: I am very patient-oriented, and what I found about doing research was that it helped me answer clinical questions that were really important to patients.  Research made me a better doctor.  I think the same thing could be said about education.  I enjoy teaching medical students, residents and fellows.  Learning is a very bidirectional process and it helps us all take better care of patients. I hadn't planned to be so engaged in academic medicine early in my career. I actually thought I would be delivering babies in my home town. I got inspired by taking care of cancer patients and the process of cancer.  I am so glad that I have had the opportunity to be in an academic health center environment.  Research and education have afforded me a great sense of career satisfaction and helped me better serve patients.  

Alex: I have PubMed searched your name and over 260 hits came up.

Alvarez: I love writing. To be able to articulate your ideas and thoughts in presentations or in writing is a lost skill for many people in medicine. Often authors feel as though they have to write long unfocused volumes to get their point across. I enjoy trying to say the most with the least amount of words. I am hoping my administrative duties won’t completely interfere with my ability to contribute to the literature on topics important for advancing patient care.

Alex: I agree; the most concise articles are often the most interesting.  Plus, they have a higher chance of being read all the way through! 

Do you have any advice to aspiring physician-scientist? In hind-sight, what is something you wish you knew at the onset of your training about establishing a successful career in academic medicine?

Alvarez: I wish I would have obtained an advanced degree like an MPH or PhD early in my career. I think that development of a more rigorous scientific thought process is so critical as aspiring physicians advance through the various steps of their training. I always tell the medical students and residents that good doctors are the ones who know what we do but the great doctors know why we do what we do and help figure out how that care should evolve.  I have tried to make up for the lack of that training by working collaboratively with many other investigators who are so incredibly bright.  

Alex: I agree.  It's important to be aware of what you don't know and find people to be on your team that can fill that gap.  

Alvarez: In the highly competitive scientific world in which we live, being able to check your ego at the door and acknowledge your vulnerabilities to other people is a very valuable asset.  Team science is the way to build a successful career. There are lots of opportunities for people to contribute in the process that answers important clinical and scientific questions and to share in the success that will be derived from that effort.

Alex: Shared success, I like it.  One of your three stated goals as director of Vanderbilt's OB/GYN department was to address unmet clinical needs for patients through collaborative research? What is your vision for the research program for this department?

Alvarez: I think this is a great department, and I have come to appreciate that the faculty and trainees are doing some very exciting research. I think we can build upon that base of research and think more strategically about what research we need to focus in on in the future.  We should develop the research capabilities within our Department and capitalize on the incredible resources we have outside of the department.  With this approach, we can become a leading institution in the specialty with the goal of bringing new discovery to the bedside to improve patient care. We don't have to be good at everything, but we should be really good in a few critical areas with a track record of abstracts, publications, and grants that substantiate our expertise.

Alex: Since I will be here for three or four years, I will be excited to see that process unfold.

Alvarez: I will be excited to see you progress.  I think this is a very strong MD/PhD program.  You guys are our future. We need incredibly smart people to get involved in women's health issues from all aspects: clinical, educational, research.  VUMC has an incredible minor league that includes our MD/PhD program, medical students, residents, and fellows.  We are committed to seeing that group continue to expand their clinical and research skills and to see some members of this group evolve into productive faculty members for my Department.

Alex: One final question: when you are not busy fulfilling all of your professional roles, what do you enjoy doing?

Alvarez: I don’t have a lot of down time, but when I do I like spending time with my wife, children and their spouses and my two grandchildren. I also like to work out, play some golf, and enjoy a nice dinner now and then.  

Alex: Hopefully as things settle down, you can try out some of the golf courses and restaurants around here.

Alvarez: We should have a number of opportunities to keep ourselves busy here in Nashville!

Click here and here to learn more about Dr. Alvarez.