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Ahuja is the first woman to head Yale’s surgery department.

After a quarter-century as one of Johns Hopkins’ top cancer surgeons and scientists, Nita Ahuja (HS; fellow; faculty, surgery, oncology, urology, 1993–2018) has taken what she calls her “Hopkins-ness” to Yale: Last February, she became the first woman chair of its Department of Surgery and chief of surgery at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Ahuja’s internationally acclaimed research achievements are in the rapidly expanding field of epigenetics. Her breakthroughs include discovery of the biomarkers for early detection of colorectal and pancreas cancer, and the pioneering identification of the epigenetic concept of CpG island methylator phenotype, when the expression of a large number of genes is simultaneously “silenced,” resulting in cancer tumors.

Born in New Delhi, India, Ahuja emigrated to the United States as a child with her accountant father and her mother, a college history teacher, in the 1960s. As a high school student, she worked as a lab assistant at the National Institutes of Health, discovered that she really liked research and then went on to get her medical degree at Duke.

As a member of the Johns Hopkins house staff, she became a protégé of John Cameron ’62 and renowned cancer researcher Stephen Baylin (faculty, oncology, medicine, 1971–present). She also calls Julie Freischlag (faculty, surgery, 2003–14)—the first woman to head Johns Hopkins’ Department of Surgery—a mentor. Ahuja subsequently became the first woman to head surgical oncology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

At Yale, she’s been tasked by the medical school dean with bolstering research efforts and the role of the clinician/scientist within the department, and with increasing collaboration across the board at Yale.

She has been meeting with the deans of Yale’s other schools to see how surgeons can work with them to deliver better care and “start … to even rethink care.” She already is establishing a surgical biotherapeutics program with Mark Saltzman (faculty, chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, 1987–96), who became Yale’s first director of biomedical engineering in 2002.

At Johns Hopkins, Ahuja says, “all of us who were successful did it by working in teams. So that’s what we’re trying to do for the surgery department here.”
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