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  • Leadership at UCSF

    Praveen V. Mummaneni, MD
    John F. Burke, MD, PhD

    For the past 24 years, the department of neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has been led by Dr. Mitchel S. Berger. As Chair, Dr. Berger built a program that launched a generation of surgeons and scientists. The question one may ask is: what were the secrets of his leadership success?

    Dr. Mitchel S. Berger with UCSF Neurological Surgery faculty in 2019.

    Dr. Berger attended Harvard College for his undergraduate studies followed by medical school at the University of Miami. He started his residency at UCSF in 1979 under the mentorship of Dr. Charles Wilson. After residency, Dr. Berger joined the faculty at the University of Washington in Seattle before being recruited back to UCSF to assume the role of chair. Although UCSF had a history of being a referral center for complex neurosurgical care, in 1996 the department needed a revival. There were few UCSF neuroscientists at the time with R01 funding, and clinical faculty largely had no interaction with the basic scientists. In addition, the department was modeled for neurosurgery faculty to be generalists as well as specialists. At the time, it was not uncommon for a neurosurgeon in the department to perform a spine case followed by a complicated aneurysm procedure. The concepts of “team-science” and neurosurgical sub-specialization had not come to the forefront.

    Dr. Berger with faculty Dr. Praveen V. Mummaneni, at the inaugural Joan O’Reilly endowed professorship ceremony.

    Upon assuming the Chair position, Dr. Berger immediately began recruiting additional faculty. He was an early proponent of the concept of sub-specialization in neurosurgery, and faculty surgeons were selected based on their potential to be masters in their chosen subspecialty field. Dr. Berger is a superb judge of character. He recruited candidates who had innate surgical talent, a commitment to teaching, a love of research, and the drive to present their work on the international stage through platform talks and publications. Dr. Berger paired many new faculty members with basic science researchers and, collectively, the surgeon and scientist were asked to lead a translational research effort. This forward-thinking approach was an early example of “team science." 

    The neurosurgery residents and faculty at the June 2019 Neurosurgery Research and Education Foundation Charity Softball tournament in Central Park, New York City.

    Many of Dr. Berger’s faculty hires became leaders in their respective fields. In the past five years, the department had 18 clinical faculty attain the rank of full professor, and an additional 14 research scientist faculty attain the rank of professor. In addition, Dr. Berger recruited several faculty who have gone on to become chairpersons at other institutions.

    The other component of Dr. Berger’s leadership is a focus on resident education. Dr. Berger was the residency program director at UCSF for the first ten years of his chair tenure. Even when he passed the baton of program director to others, Dr. Berger was very focused on the resident selection committee. He would carefully comb through more than 250 applications to select two and later three residents per year to train at UCSF. Again Dr. Berger was a superb judge of character. He had a knack for picking residents who are driven to be the stars in the field. This attention to detail regarding residency selection has proven to be effective.

    The neurosurgery residents and Dr. Michael McDermott at UCSF (March 2020).

    UCSF residents have gone on to academic positions at a higher rate than ever before. Graduates of the program have gone on to academic positions 83% of the time over the past 10 years, and 88% of the time over the past five years. These trainees carry on UCSF’s legacy of rigorous academic research and uncompromising technical expertise.

    The ultimate testament to Dr. Berger’s leadership are the results that the department achieved during his tenure as chair. UCSF neurosurgery is the #1 neurosurgical program in terms of resident and faculty H-index, the #1 neurosurgical program in terms of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, the #1 residency  training program as ranked by physicians on Doximity, and the #1 neurosurgery program on the West Coast ranked by the US News and World Report. More than these accolades, Dr. Berger has led neurosurgery nationally, serving as the Vice-President of CNS, Vice-Chair of the ABNS, President of the Academy of Neurological Surgeons, and President of the AANS.

    Ultimately, Dr. Berger leads by example...Through his sustained effort, passion, and intellectual curiosity, Dr. Berger has left UCSF, and neurosurgery as a whole, in a much stronger position than when he started.

     - Edward Chang, MD and Praveen Mummaneni, MD

    Ultimately, Dr. Berger leads by example. He diligently guided the department through the early months of the COVID pandemic and coauthored two manuscripts on UCSF’s response. Through his sustained effort, passion, and intellectual curiosity, Dr. Berger has left UCSF, and neurosurgery as a whole, in a much stronger position than when he started. His trainees and mentees carry on his legacy and are now training the next generation of neurosurgeons. We are very proud to have Dr. Berger as our leader, and thank him for his service to our program, and our field.

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