UCSF Chancellor Recounts Path to Realizing Her Childhood Dream

By Lisa Cisneros on April 30, 2012

Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, received a standing ovation on April 19 after sharing a heart-felt story about her life and lessons learned to students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered to hear what was billed as UCSF's inaugural “Last Lecture.”

“I think the most important thing for me, and I suspect for many others — at least the people who I respect and admire have in common — make a decision to be happy and healthy,” she said toward the end of her hour-long speech. “Make a decision that you will be. Then do everything in your power to be happy and healthy.” 

Frank Desmond with his daughter Sue

A young Susan Desmond-Hellmann stands with her father, Frank Desmond

And by all accounts, Desmond-Hellmann has achieved just that.

Now in her third year at the helm of UCSF, Desmond-Hellmann was selected for the honor of delivering the inaugural “last lecture” by UCSF students who were emailed a voting ballot consisting of faculty members from across the four professional schools in January.

Hundreds of students voted for Desmond-Hellmann, who admitted that she was a little anxious about what to say if this was truly her last lecture. She said she drew inspiration from great speeches delivered by the late Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon professor and alumnus, and Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers, both of whom died of different types of prostate cancer. She appreciated hearing their stories about childhood dreams and the meaning of life.

Born in Napa, California, Desmond-Hellmann reflected on her life as a self-described “nerdy kid,” one of seven children raised in Reno, Nevada. During her talk, she said she realized her childhood dreams of becoming a doctor, a profession influenced in part by her father, Frank Desmond, who was a retail pharmacist, and their family physician, Noah Smirnoff, MD. She fondly recalled Smirnoff making a morning house call to their home to check in on her father one rare day when he called in sick with the flu.

Desmond-Hellmann talked about her parents, both role models in her journey to become UCSF’s ninth chancellor and the first woman appointed to the post.

“Mom, like my dad, was the first in her family to go to college,” she told the audience in a nearly full Cole Hall Auditorium. “But not only the first in her family to go to college; my mom is truly a coalminer's daughter. Her dad died in the coalmines in Wyoming when my mom was 14. My mom went to school not speaking English. She spoke Slovenian, being the first in her family born in the United States, and later became an English teacher, which I've always thought is really remarkable.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann and her husband, Nick Hellmann, stand with Edward Mbidde

Susan Desmond-Hellmann and her husband, Nick Hellmann, stand with Edward Mbidde in Uganda, where she worked from 1989 to 1991.

“Grandpa was a San Francisco police detective, and grandma was a maid and then worked at JC Penney's and lived down in the Sunset.”

“So this was a terrific childhood,” Desmond-Hellmann said pausing to show family photographs in her PowerPoint presentation. “And I cannot explain on the surface how this crazy kid — that's me again; this is at age 10 — decided my childhood dream was to be a doctor. That's what I was going to be. Now, my sister Teresa, who's seen this picture more often than she'd like, is convinced that — I think this picture shows how early I wanted to be a doctor. She thinks it shows how early I was bossing everyone around. And she's probably right.”

Throughout her life as a medical student, chief resident, clinical scientist, visiting faculty member in Uganda, biotech leader and now chancellor, Desmond-Hellmann has learned what it takes to succeed. “The most important lesson I learned overall was the power of aiming big and establishing a culture that brings out the best in everyone.”

Related Links:

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech
2005

Randy Pausch's Last Lecture
Sept. 18, 2007