Zerhouni Awaits Senate Confirmation Hearing
In announcing that he wants School of Medicine Executive Vice Dean Elias Zerhouni to head the National Institutes of Health, President Bush remarked last month, "One former colleague calls [Zerhouni] a quadruple threat: a doctor who excels at teaching, research, patient care and management."
That characterization may have been news to people unfamiliar with academic medicine. But around Hopkins, where Zerhouni's skills are no secret, Bush's pick for the top post at the nation's multibillion-dollar research enterprise seems inspired.
Those who've worked with Zerhouni say he amazes them with his ability to analyze problems quickly, absorb information and make informed decisions.
He's the kind of person, notes Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry Director Jeremy Berg, who can ask two or three questions and determine whether a complex idea is feasible "after most of us have been struggling with it for months."
"Elias seizes an issue, gives it a structure, a goal, and produces results," agrees Vice Dean for Research Chi Dang.
Zerhouni, who started his radiology residency at Hopkins in 1975 and in 1996 became chairman of the department, is credited with numerous research and clinical breakthroughs, including developing imaging methods extensively used for diagnosing cancer and cardiovascular disease.
In 1997, when new Dean/CEO Edward Miller set out to make Hopkins Medicine more competitive in the regional health care market, he asked Zerhouni to lead that effort. One of Zerhouni's first assignments was to move the Clinical Practice Association from a billing operation into a premier academic faculty practice.
"He took a struggling organization," says Tom Kelly, departing chairman of molecular biology and genetics, "and, with faculty help, gave it a clear mission. The role he played was incredibly tough, because all the clinical departments had their own issues and agendas."
Miller next set his sights on positioning Hopkins to be the dominant player in scientific discovery. Again he called on Zerhouni, this time to take over as interim dean of research.
Convinced that the ability to program stem cells or other cell types to form new muscle or neural tissues in humans could be tantalizingly close, Zerhouni became the driving force (fueled by an anonymous $58.5 million gift he helped raise) behind Hopkins' Institute for Cell Engineering (ICE), a center dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of how cells reinvent themselves. The institute is the first of its kind in academic medicine.
"If there's an example of his vision," says Jeffrey Rothstein, Hopkins' director of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research, "ICE is it."
Though Zerhouni, 51, is barred from giving interviews until after the Senate holds confirmation hearings, he has said that he could not have dreamed that one day he would be offered such a lofty position. He had just $300 in his pocket when he and his wife immigrated to America from Algeria 27 years ago.
Obviously, he never forgot the experience.
In 1996, Dome asked some Hopkins employees to name the one person who influenced their career the most. Carlos Lugo-Olivieri, then a second-year resident in diagnostic radiology, said:
"I came here from Puerto Rico for my fourth year of medical school. It was like a dream coming to Hopkins. I got to meet Dr. (Stanley) Siegelman and Dr. (Elias) Zerhouni, two of the biggest names in radiology. You don't think this is going to happen to you.
"Then Dr. Siegelman got me a position working with Dr. Zerhouni for two years on a cardiac research grant. Dr. Zerhouni became a real mentor, and we developed a father-son relationship.
When I came here from Puerto Rico, I had to leave my wife and daughters behind. But I never told Dr. Zerhouni that. When I finally mentioned it at a department picnic, he was shocked.
"Several months later, I was sitting in the lab when my paycheck came. It was for a huge amount of money. At first I thought it was a mistake. Then I realized what happened. I started crying. I went to see Dr. Zerhouni and asked him, What is this?
"'Well, you can bring your family now,' he said.
"Everything I have, I owe it to him. "Everything I am, I owe it to him."
-Reported by Mary Ann Ayd