Profiles in ACS leadership: A few questions for Joshua M. V. Mammen, MD, PhD, FACS

Editor’s note: The Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons is launching a new series of articles profiling leaders of the College. This feature will be published monthly. The questions are intended to give readers a look at the person behind the surgical mask and to inspire other members of the College to consider taking on leadership positions within the organization and the institutions where they practice.

For this month’s profile in American College of Surgeons (ACS) leadership, we interviewed Joshua M. V. Mammen, MD, PhD, FACS, Chair of the Young Fellows Association (YFA). Dr. Mammen is the Merle M. Musselman Centennial Professor of Surgery and chief, division of surgical oncology, department of surgery, and vice-chair for academic affairs, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.

Why did you decide to become a surgeon?

I grew up in Acadiana (southwest Louisiana). My father was the only surgeon in our small town of Kaplan until his retirement last year. Like many rural surgeons, my father’s practice regularly extended well outside the walls of the hospital and clinic. His patients also were our neighbors and friends. Nearly daily, I observed in a very concrete and intimate way the impact that my father’s skills and knowledge had on our community. Our town responded just as generously, sometimes with gifts of garden vegetables, eggs, and crawfish when someone could not afford the treatment.

The opportunity to provide tangible and long-lasting contributions to my community was the impetus for my interest in becoming a

surgeon. I entered college and medical school firmly convinced that my vocation was to become a surgeon. I often recall how lucky I am to be able to serve my community in this fashion.

Who were some of your mentors along the way, and what did you learn from them that you apply on a regular basis?

The number of individuals who have assisted me thus far is perhaps too numerous to list. I have been the beneficiary of the kindness and support of many mentors. In medical school, my first opportunity to engage in research was with Judith Saide, PhD, a basic scientist in the department of physiology at Boston University, MA. As I stumbled through the laboratory, she helped guide me in obtaining my first insights into basic science and translational research. In my extended residency program and research time, my three chairs of surgery at the University of Cincinnati, OH (Josef Fischer, MD, FACS; Jeffrey Matthews, MD, FACS; and Michael Nussbaum, MD, FACS), modeled the characteristics of a university-based surgeon that I hoped to emulate. While research and teaching were key points, their unflagging commitment to patient care was the key lesson from my residency training.

Additionally, the four surgical oncologists at the University of Cincinnati (Andrew Lowy, MD, FACS; Syed Ahmad, MD, FACS; Elizabeth Shaughnessy, MD, FACS; and Jeffrey Sussman, MD, FACS) nurtured my budding interest in complex general surgical oncology. During fellowship, I found tremendous models for exceptional melanoma care and advocacy in Jeffrey Gershenwald, MD, FACS, and Merrick Ross, MD, FACS.

Clinical Congress 2017: Dr. Mammen speaking at the YFA Annual Meeting

As an early faculty member at the University of Kansas, James Thomas, MD, FACS, my first chair, and then Romano Delcore, MD, FACS, regularly provided me advice and counsel as I established myself as a surgical oncologist in Kansas City, KS. They both were sources of advice in addition to helping me learn how to best lead as I assumed leadership roles at the institutional, local, and national levels.

Finally, as I become more engaged in community outreach and health policy, Gary Doolittle, MD, and Jeffrey Kramer, MD, FACS, have provided opportunities to become involved in key issues in our area. They introduced me to important stakeholders and helped to guide new strategies to reduce the burden of cancer in our region.

Another major area of interest is ensuring that we continue to provide high-quality surgical care throughout the country. The American Board of Surgery is at the forefront of this effort and is led by an amazing group of individuals. Two master educator rural surgeons, Tyler Hughes, MD, FACS, ACS Secretary, and Scott Coates, MD, FACS, have guided me in learning about the importance of excellence in training and evaluation. I regularly rely on their insights and perspectives in this arena, among others.

Describe your journey to becoming Chair of the YFA.

Being involved in the College was far from accidental. I recall traveling with my parents to Clinical Congress cities as a young child. I joined the ACS as soon as I became a resident (the Medical Student membership category had not yet been created). At my first Clinical Congress meeting, I attended the Resident and Associate Society (RAS) meeting. Almost immediately, I was given opportunities to participate in the numerous RAS activities oriented toward issues important to surgical trainees. I was active in RAS throughout my time as a trainee, mostly focusing on issues associated with resident education.

Later, as an early-career surgeon, I became involved in the YFA and most recently was elected as Chair last October. As much as I enjoyed participation at the national level, I also have appreciated the opportunity to gather with my colleagues at ACS chapter meetings in Ohio, South Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska.

What advice do you give to your colleagues who are interested in leadership positions?

The key is to show up reliably and to say “yes.” All of our lives are quite hectic with competing obligations. Without a doubt, caring for our patients is our most significant duty. To contribute to change and improvement, one has to invest in efforts with your time and energy. This level of commitment, however, will regularly provide you an opportunity to participate in leadership positions. I found that subsequent opportunities to contribute can reliably be connected back to volunteering for a previous role. Once in a leadership role, I would suggest asking a lot of questions. Curiosity and interest in your colleagues, processes, and the environment are all important prior to making decisions.

Clinical Congress 2019: YFA Governing Council meeting. Front row, from left (all MD, FACS): Christopher DuCoin, Robert Winfield, Shubhada Dhage, Paula Ferrada, Dr. Mammen, James Suliburk, and Jennifer Bishop.
Back row (all MD, FACS): Jason Wilson, Shaneeta Johnson, Cynthia Talley, Amalia Stefanou, Ankus Gosain, and Ashley Vergis.

How do you achieve work-life integration and well-being? For example, what are some of your hobbies and interests outside of surgery?

I appreciate the term work-life integration rather than balance. Like others who love their jobs, I consider my profession as a surgeon to be a large part of my identity. Even while not physically in the hospital, I often spend some time reflecting on my work and certainly on the care of my patients.

Outside of work, I most enjoy spending my time participating in activities with our family. Our five children have numerous school-related and extracurricular interests, so my wife and I enjoy spending time attending these events. I also enjoy reading, mostly nonfiction history or biographies.

Anything else you would like to add?

Since I am completing my last few months as the Chair of YFA, I want to sincerely thank my colleagues for having allowed me to serve in this role. RAS and YFA both serve as laboratories for some of the most important ideas that then get adopted by the College at-large. I am honored to have had the opportunity to participate.

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