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Alumni Profile: Mary Nettleman, M.D.

Posted by on Monday, March 6, 2017 in Alumni Profile, Winter 2017 .

Med School Dean Credits VUSM Influence, Support


Photo by Greg Latza

Since joining the University of South Dakota in 2012, Mary Nettleman, M.D., can’t begin to count the times she’s been asked if she’s the first female dean of the university’s Sanford School of Medicine. She is.

“People ask me how it feels to be a woman dean, and I tell them that I’ve been a woman all of my life, so it doesn’t feel that strange to me,” she said, laughing. “I often hear from younger women that I’m a role model for them, but I also stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Nettleman graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 1981, and she credits many ‘giants’ she encountered at Vanderbilt for paving her way in academic medicine, including preparing her to become dean of South Dakota’s only medical school.

“As dean of a medical school, you have to understand a lot about medical education, clinical work and research,” she said. “Vanderbilt gave me a very strong foundation in all of those areas. And the teachers there really cared about how we did.”

Vanderbilt’s faculty were nurturing, but they also demanded excellence, Nettleman said. In particular, she recalled Tom Brittingham, M.D., the Department of Medicine’s first residency director and a revered faculty member.

“Third-year medical students had to write long H & Ps (history and physical exams) on patients,” Nettleman said. “If someone put in their notes ‘possible history of rheumatic fever,’ Dr. Brittingham would call the patient’s mother and ask her directly. Then, when that medical student came in and said, “There is a questionable history…,’ Dr. Brittingham would say, ‘Why is it questionable? Did you do the necessary background work?’”

While at Vanderbilt, Nettleman worked with John Oates, M.D., professor of Pharmacology, who ignited her love for research. She went on to lead investigations in areas such as women’s preconception health and infectious diseases. Notably, she served as principal investigator for a multisite National Institutes of Health career development initiative, Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health.

Today, she doesn’t have much time for research, but she enjoys the challenges of leading a well-reputed medical school, with outstanding metrics such as 100 percent of students passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination-Step 2-CK in 2016.

“In this role, you’ve got to build on successes, but also be sure that you are doing the same thing that Vanderbilt did for me, providing a very strong educational base so people can follow their dreams and do it well.”