Getting to know Yale leaders—Nancy Brown

In February 2020, Dr. Nancy J. Brown became the 19th dean of Yale School of Medicine and the first woman to lead the medical school in its 210-year history. She is the Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of Medicine and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine at Yale School of Medicine. Nancy graduated from Yale College, where she majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and went on to earn her medical degree from Harvard University. She completed her internship and residency programs in medicine at Vanderbilt University, where she also did a fellowship in clinical pharmacology. Nancy joined the faculty of Vanderbilt in 1992 and held a number of leadership positions, serving as chief of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, associate dean for clinical and translational scientist development, and Robert H. Williams professor before becoming the Hugh J. Morgan Chair of Medicine and physician-in-chief of Vanderbilt University Hospital in 2010.
At Vanderbilt, Nancy established the Elliot Newman Society to support the development of physician-scientists and co-founded the Vanderbilt Master of Science in Clinical Investigation program. Her research has defined the molecular mechanisms through which commonly prescribed blood pressure and diabetes drugs affect the risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease. In her clinical practice, Nancy has treated patients with resistant and secondary forms of hypertension. She has served as a member of the NIH National Advisory Research Resources Council and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Advisory Council, and as the president of the Association of Professors of Medicine. Nancy’s numerous awards include election to the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the Association of American Physicians, and the National Academy of Medicine. In 2019, she was elected a Master of the American College of Physicians.
Nancy lived in Nashville for 33 years before coming to Yale. Currently, she resides in New Haven while her husband Andy May continues his work as the president of Truxton Trust in Nashville—they commute to see each other. Together, they have three adult sons, Daniel, Isaac and Samuel. Their first grandson, Adam Zimmermann May was born a month ago.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
Honestly, the pandemic has had a significant impact on my work, since I joined Yale on February 1 and we saw our first patient with COVID on March 7. Many of the effects have been positive. On the one hand, social distancing makes the process of getting to know people in the medical school and establishing our goals and vision, a bit tricky. On the other, Zoom is not a bad medium for having listening meetings, and for communicating with people. For example, in June, I gave a state-of-the-school address and 1500 people listened. I believe that is much higher than would have attended had I delivered the address in person in an auditorium. Also, COVID-19 has presented a common enemy and so it has allowed us to work together in ways that we have never worked together before—to really think about our fundamental mission and values.
What do you find hopeful in our current COVID situation?
We are working toward better therapies, better preventive strategies, and ultimately, a vaccine. My hope from a school perspective is that we learn from this extraordinary time and apply the lessons we have learned about collaboration to have a greater impact going forward.
What was the last book you read or are reading now?
I just started a book about William Strickland, the American architect who helped establish the Greek Revival movement in the United States. Strickland designed buildings in Philadelphia as well as the state capitol of Tennessee. My youngest son is in architecture school and we were looking at the state capitol in Tennessee. I wanted to learn a little bit about the architect.
What do you think is the best advice a manager can receive?
Surround yourself with good people. This is the most useful advice for a manager. Whenever you are a manager you face many challenges. If you have the right people in place, it’s much easier to approach problems with creative solutions and to execute.
Is there a particular musical artist or music that you listen to?
I would say my taste in music is pretty eclectic. Lately, I’ve been listening to David Grisham, an American mandolinist. I’ve been introduced to a lot of great music by our sons. But I still listen to my old stuff, the music that I grew up with—everything from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin to Led Zeppelin.
When faced with a challenge or adversity, how do you approach it?
I have learned to pause and think. You have to get all of the facts and you have to decide how quickly you need to move. Often, when one is faced with a challenge, the temptation can be to react quickly without gathering all the information. It never hurts to take a deep breath and consider your options.
What are you most grateful for?
Family, that’s an easy one. We have three great sons and now a daughter-in-law and grandson and a wonderful extended family. That is what sustains me.
What would be your ultimate vacation destination?
We love to travel— to European cities, but also in the Southwest of the United States where we enjoy hiking. We have spent a fair amount of time in the Pacific Northwest. A family-favorite destination is Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington State.
If you could solve one human problem in today’s world, what would it be?
Communication, listening. It may not be the answer you had in mind, but a lack of listening and dialogue underlies many other problems.
I know you’ve only been in New Haven since February, but is there a restaurant that you would recommend to a new employee?
Oh, lots of them. In my own neighborhood, I like Olmo and September in Bangkok. We take many of our medical school visitors to Olea.
What has helped you develop as a leader over the course of your career?
Mentorship. Some of my mentors have passed away, but there are still mentors and sponsors with whom I speak from time to time.
A favorite memory from childhood?
I was an Air Force brat, so we lived in quite a few places. Because we moved around, a memory that comes to mind is a driving trip we took as a family. Back then, families tended not to fly, but to drive to places. My parents, brother, sister and I drove across the country together— from Syracuse to Southern California, visiting many national landmarks along the way. I remember riding shotgun, shooting the breeze with my father as he drove.
If you could tell me about the first time you…made a mistake on the job; reached an important goal; realized what you wanted to be when you grew up; were promoted.
I think about early mistakes I made in my career. Reacting before I had all of the information, before learning all sides of a story. A colleague has shared the expression, ‘Every pancake has two sides.’