Vivian Lee is a reformer, but she isn't much of a talker.
That's because she's "a doer," one full of insights and a drive for excellence, according to former colleagues in Manhattan, where Lee was vice dean for science at New York University's Langone Medical Center until six months ago.
At just 45, Lee may be Utah's most influential physician, leading a $2 billion biomedical research, education and clinical enterprise clustered against the Wasatch foothills above the University of Utah's main campus. Last year the U. hired Lee, a leading radiological researcher and mother of four, as its senior vice president for health sciences, the flagship's No. 2 post long held by Lorris Betz.
"She is somebody with very high standards and she cares deeply about any endeavor she's engaged in and has a big vision of the future. She is not an incrementalist," said Robert Grossman, Langone's dean and CEO and one-time head of the NYU radiology department that Lee joined in 1998.
"She is going to want to dramatically transform Utah," Grossman said. "She's going to rapidly assess its strengths and weaknesses, and decide where she wants to invest and who she wants to invest in."
A critical area in which Lee intends to invest is personalized medicine, tailoring therapies to fit patients' genetic makeup. The U. is well situated to have an impact in that because of its expertise in human genetics, abetted by world-class faculty such as Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi and Lynn Jorde, chairman of the U. Department of Human Genetics, and resources like the Utah Population Database. Lee knew about the famous database but didn't realize its potential to help unlock the genetic basis for numerous diseases until after she arrived.
But as the medical school's new dean, Lee's most immediate goal is to enlarge the class size to address a looming physician shortage. The entering class was cut in 2010 from 102 to 82 after Medicaid trimmed reimbursements to the U. by $10 million, depleting the revenues used to fund medical education. Lee believes the U. can restore the 20 seats, then add another 20 over two years, without raising tuition or compromising on quality, but it will require a big investment from the state.
"It's the right thing to do," she said. "It's the perfect time to get more kids in the pipeline so they'll be physicians when we need them."
'Utah is lucky' • Lee's own tour through medical training went through the world's most prestigious institutions. She grew up in the college town of Norman, Okla., and studied at Harvard-Radcliffe. She earned a doctorate in medical engineering as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before returning to Harvard for medical school and doing a residency in diagnostic radiology at Duke. Lee joined the NYU faculty in 1998 after completing a fellowship there in magnetic-resonance imaging.
In 2009, the Asian Pacific Fund awarded Lee the Chang Lin Tien Educational Leadership Award honoring Asian-Americans who have made major academic contributions and are expected to be great leaders in higher education.
Grossman, Lee's former boss at NYU, was sad to see her leave, but happy for the young scientist who had rapidly built up the university's medical research infrastructure during her tenure.
"People have the highest respect and admiration for her. I was always immensely impressed with her intellect and capacity to get things done," he said. "When you gave her a task, you could be assured it would be done well. Utah is lucky to have her."
Joining Lee in Utah is her husband, Benedict Kingsbury, a law professor who directed NYU's Institute for International Law and Justice, and their four school-age daughters. Kingsbury is a visiting professor at the U.'s S.J. Quinney School of Law, working with its Global Justice Think Tank.
Lee wasn't looking to leave NYU when headhunters called her last winter about the Utah opening. The state was already on her radar because of its innovation in improving health care, including improving outcomes and controlling costs; reforming the nation's broken system is high on a list of problems she wants to tackle. After visiting Utah, she was convinced the U. was an institution going places.
The U. had recently achieved a No. 1 ranking for quality and accountability among the nation's teaching hospitals, rising from the middle to the top in just four years, which deeply impressed Lee.
"It's a big deal to be in the top 10 of 100 programs. I know how intense the competition was. These were based on real numbers and patient outcomes," she said. "That told me this was a high-performing organization. They were prioritizing quality."
She noted that the U. is among the few medical universities where the clinical and the academic arms were under a single leader.
"You can see the difference," Lee said. "It means you have the potential of bringing everyone together."
At NYU, Lee was the principal investigator on three research projects, two of which just had their grants renewed by the National Institutes of Health. She brought the entire program to Utah, which carries more than $2 million a year in funding. One of her projects is developing ways to use MRI to track renal function in real time.
To run this research, Lee tapped the knowledge of existing U. faculty, such as radiologists Marta Heilbrun and Glen Morrell, who is also an adjunct professor of electrical engineering.
Campus changes • Lee's arrival last summer in Salt Lake City coincided with major turnover in U. leadership. Several new vice presidents joined the president's cabinet, homebuilder Clark Ivory assumed the trustees' leadership position, and a search began for a leader to replace then-President Michael Young, now in charge of the University of Washington. Betz put off his retirement to serve as interim president this year.
Meanwhile, the U.'s upper campus is wrapping up a building binge. Officials have recently dedicated expansions of the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, and a renovation of the College of Nursing, while the College of Pharmacy expansion takes shape. Lee has her sights set on a new school of dentistry, using a $30 million pledge from an anonymous benefactor to fund the building.
The Nevada-based private Roseman University recently launched the state's first dentistry program, but dozens of students still leave the state, taking with them tuition dollars.
"We want to not only keep some of those students here, but also recruit faculty who will be outstanding researchers in oral health," Lee said.
Lee's primary goal, expanding each medical class from 82 to 122, means enlarging the student body by 160 at a cost of $12.2 million a year. During the upcoming legislative session, Lee will ask lawmakers to shoulder $9.6 million of the burden in a cost-sharing arrangement. Currently, the state covers just 4 percent of the medical school's operating budget, far below the national median of 14 percent for state institutions. But raising tuition is not a good solution.
"We don't want our student to be so indebted that they won't want to go into primary care," Lee said.
Meet Vivian Lee
As senior vice president for health sciences, Lee serves the U. as dean of the School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care. The $750,000-a-year post oversees several clinical and research institutes as well as four colleges health, pharmacy, nursing and medicine and ARUP, the massive pathology lab in Research Park. Lee holds a faculty appointment in the department of radiology and is the principal investigator on three research projects, funded by the National Institutes of Health, into diagnostic radiology. She studied medicine at Harvard and earned a doctorate in medical engineering at Oxford. Lee's research explores ways to use magnetic resonance to track kidney and liver functions. Prior to coming to Utah in July, Lee was vice dean for science at New York University. She is married to law professor Benedict Kingsbury. They have four daughters.