UCSF Names Scientist, Public Health Advocate as Nursing School Dean

As a boy growing up in Washington, DC, David Vlahov witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“I remember being with my father who believed deeply in civil rights,” Vlahov said of the historical day in August 1963. “He said this is something where we have to show ourselves, where we have to have a voice. This is important to our family and important to our faith.”

Vlahov recalls the “conviction and camaraderie” and the “esprit of people being part of this movement” that would define a generation, including himself.

“I remember just being transformed that day,” Vlahov said, “knowing that I would spend my life serving people and working for social justice, and recognizing how important diversity is not just for achieving equal rights, but for advancing ourselves as a people.”

That life-changing experience put Vlahov, PhD, RN, a scientist and a registered nurse, on a path that has led him to the UCSF School of Nursing, where he will become the first male dean of the century-old school. He is not the first male dean at the University of California; that title goes to Courtney Lyder, dean and professor at the UCLA School of Nursing.

After earning a degree in history, Vlahov thought long and hard about how he could make a difference in the world. He considered a career in medicine, before enrolling at the University of Maryland’s School of Nursing, where he earned BSN and MS degrees. He earned a doctorate in epidemiology in 1988 from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

“Nursing sounded like the best match for me as it blends biology, psycho-social and clinical elements in patient care. I’ve always liked the idea of caring for other people,” he said. “I felt that nursing epitomized it.”

Possessing ‘Unique Blend of Experience’

A pioneer in urban health research, expert in global health epidemiology and highly prolific author, Vlahov comes to UCSF from the New York Academy of Medicine, where he serves as the senior vice president of research and director of the Center for Urban Epidemiologic Studies.

He has conducted epidemiological studies in Baltimore, Harlem and the Bronx and his work has exemplified how individual- and community-level intervention studies can address social determinants of health.

The UC Regents approved of Vlahov’s appointment as dean, which becomes effective April 1, 2011.

UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, announced his appointment in an email address to the UCSF community today (Dec. 7) saying that Vlahov’s track record and commitment to public health will serve the University well.

“David brings an exciting combination of community-based research and intervention to UCSF. His unique blend of experience, leadership skills and interests is highly relevant given the continually evolving landscape of health care,” Desmond-Hellmann said in her announcement.

“I would especially like to highlight the strong match between David’s research and UCSF’s focus areas. Not only is David a respected scientist in the areas of HIV infection — for which he received a MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health — and population-based mental health research following community disasters, such as the World Trade Center attacks— he is also known for his longstanding commitment to addressing health care disparities through community research and clinical activities,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

Vlahov is excited to be joining UCSF and the School of Nursing having visited the campus several times in recent months meeting with faculty, students, alumni, the deans and other UCSF leaders.

“During my visits to UCSF, I have been energized by the enthusiasm, the intelligence, the great leadership. It’s a terrific environment,” Vlahov says. “I walked away with a sense that I hoped I would be invited back for another visit.”

Understanding UCSF

Vlahov, who will visit UCSF again in January to attend the Chancellor’s retreat, said he will spend his first few months meeting with faculty, students, staff and alumni to better understand the school.

“I want to really listen to them about what they are doing, what ideas are coming out that I can use in my role as dean to communicate to the rest of university and to alumni about the richness of the nursing school culture.”

Vlahov already feels well informed having had a completely candid conversation with Kathy Dracup, RN, who led the school as dean for the past decade, and talking with Zina Mirsky, a longtime associate dean of the nursing school, whom he called a “treasure” for her institutional knowledge and excellent leadership skills.

Among Vlahov’s top priorities are working to update the School of Nursing’s strategic plan, engaging faculty in a collaborative process that will be transparent and inclusive, to develop shared goals and objectives. The strategic plan will define the role of the school and nurses in health care reform and set direction for clinical education, management and the types of research that will be pursued.

Vlahov brings a deep understanding of the complex relationships between the public health arena and the education and training of nursing professionals having served as a member on the prestigious Institute of Medicine’s Committee of Public Financing and Delivery of HIV care.

Expanding Opportunities for Nurses

As the founder and first President of the International Society for Urban Health, Vlahov has worked in the Philippines, China, Japan and Kenya, where he has convened nine annual international conferences.

His work with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Urban Health Center in Kobe, Japan complements the School of Nursing’s WHO Collaborating Centre status, Desmond-Hellmann pointed out.

“This issue maps well to UCSF’s mission of advancing health worldwide™,” she said.  “His interests in urbanization in both developed and developing countries will find compatible homes here in the San Francisco Bay Area and with our internationally active faculty.”

Throughout his travels to these countries, Vlahov has found that nurses have a limited role in health care. He believes that lower- to middle-income countries can increase their capacity to provide quality health care by expanding opportunities for nurse-run practices not only to expose nursing students to different educational experiences and practices, but to engage them as partners in promoting health with other health care professionals.

He also sees a growing need for nurses in community-based settings, such as schools, where they would be involved in providing care for children who lack primary care and could conduct population-based health studies.

Vlahov is well aware of the state’s financial challenges and the economic climate that the 10-campus UC system continues to struggle with in a constant battle to maintain the quality of and accessibility to the University. He’s been keeping up with UC news, including the recent hikes in student tuition for nursing students.

“The budget cuts are real and are making us go back to the table to determine what other sources of revenue we can pursue. We have to be creative and very nimble. At the federal level, getting research funding from the National Institutes of Health will be much more competitive. We are fortunate that UCSF has such a great track record in nursing research funding.”

A Family Man

Vlahov has been married to Robyn Gershon, DrPH, an occupational and environmental health and safety researcher who serves as associate dean for research resources at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health for 20 years. They have two children, Alexander and Alexandra, who is pursuing her Master’s degree in nursing at New York University, and three grandchildren.

Vlahov met his wife at Johns Hopkins University where she was a doctoral student and he was finishing up his doctoral studies. Gershon had told her advisor that she was interested in writing about a topic and was told that it had already been covered by Vlahov. When the two met, he recalls, she was noticeably “annoyed” that she had been scooped.

“I just looked at her and I thought she was adorable,” he said.

In the end, they collaborated on a paper on the casual transmission of HIV, which was published in 1988, the year he received his PhD degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health.

“What should have taken a few months, took us almost a year to complete,” Vlahov said of co-authoring the paper with Gershon. “We fell madly in love.”

Related Links:


UCSF appoints new nursing school dean
News Release, December 7, 2010


The Global Forum on Urbanization and Health
Kobe, Japan, November 15-17, 2010

The New York Academy of Medicine, Senior Staff