Mentoring Lays the Foundation for a Life of Achievement

“Being a dean is like a big mentoring job,” says Dennis S. Charney, M.D., '77, who–as the Anne and Joel Ahrenkranz Dean at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Mount Sinai Medical Center–has helped elevate Mount Sinai to become one of the top medical schools in the nation.

He adds, “I’ve always enjoyed helping other people do their best, and being a dean is all about doing that: providing a great environment to educate our students, for our physicians to provide extraordinary care, and for our scientists to conduct breakthrough science.”

Not surprisingly, Charney touts his work “developing a research team, and training and mentoring other physicians and scientists” among his proudest achievements. “I have a large professional family of friends and colleagues. Many of my former trainees are now chairs of psychiatric departments and eminent scientists throughout the country,” he explains.

He credits Penn State College of Medicine as instrumental in laying this foundation for his thirty-year career as a psychiatric investigator, professor, administrative leader, and dean.

The first in his family to become a doctor, Charney chose Penn State, which was at the time a new medical school known for its unique focus on the humanities and strong emphasis in primary care. A newly-married New Yorker, he and his wife also were charmed by the slower-paced rural environment of central Pennsylvania.

Although he entered medical school focusing on family medicine and considering a possible stint in the Peace Corps, Charney’s career path was altered almost immediately when he met a professor who ultimately became his mentor: Anthony Kales, M.D., chair of psychiatry and a nationally renowned researcher in sleep disorders.

Both huge basketball fans, the two connected over athletics and hit it off personally (he ended up coaching Kales’ children in the local basketball league).

The rest is history. “Almost as soon as I arrived, I became interested in brain and behavior research. Because of my unique relationship with Tony Kales, he got me excited about psychiatric research,” says Charney. “In my first year, my goal changed from wanting to become a primary care physician to becoming a researcher in psychiatry.”

Charney was grateful, recognizing it was atypical for a freshman medical student to develop a strong mentoring relationship with a professor who was not only a department chair, but a nationally prominent researcher.

“Dr. Kales taught me about experimental methods, in how you construct a research environment to answer important questions. He taught me how to analyze data the right way and gave me a chance to publish several papers as a medical student,” Charney says. “He gave me a lot of hands-on research experience and provided both mentorship and friendship.”

Charney also appreciated the fact that Penn State provided an environment where medical students had contact with senior-level physicians and scientists, including those as prominent as John Waldhausen, M.D., the chairman who founded and led the Department of Surgery for more than twenty-five years.

As Charney explains, “Penn State was a great place to be mentored, and provided a roadmap for my career.”

His career is distinguished, including professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, chairing the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Board of Scientific Counselors (which advises the Institute’s director on intramural research programs), and leading the NIMH Mood and Anxiety Disorder Research Program (one of the largest of its kind worldwide), as well as the experimental therapeutic and pathophysiology branch.

As an investigator, Charney has spent thirty years investigating the cause and treatment of severe mood and anxiety disorders. He’s made fundamental contributions to our understanding of neurochemistry and the neuroanatomy of mood disorders and anxiety.

His scientific research has been honored by every major award in his field. In 2002, Penn State recognized his outstanding accomplishments, receiving the Alumni Association’s Alumni Fellow Award.

A decade ago, his research group discovered that Ketamine has rapid antidepressant effects, a finding that is having a major impact on the development and discovery of novel drug treatments for mood disorders. “I think my research has had a big impact in terms of developing a better understanding of serious psychiatric disease and discovering new treatments,” he explains.

Despite the pressures of being a dean, Charney continues to conduct research. “Why do I do it? I still have a love of acquiring new knowledge that no one else has uncovered,” he says. “It also gives me credibility with my faculty. I’m not just an administrator, but am doing research.” He adds, “The main thing is, I really love doing it.”

Noting that the World Health Organization ranks depression as number three of all medical diseases, Charney stresses the importance for physicians to recognize mood and anxiety disorders, which can start early and pose challenges throughout a patient’s life, impairing his or her ability to be productive.

This fall, after fifteen years of research to uncover the psychological and biological characteristics on how people can be resilient, he and a colleague, Steven Southwick, M.D., released a book (Sept. 11) published by Cambridge University Press titled “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.” He and Southwick interviewed scores of people who had faced severe challenges, yet came through stronger and wiser: POWs from Vietnam, members of the U.S. Special Forces, victims of earthquakes, as well as people who had overcome physical and sexual abuse.

“We uncovered ten factors that help people bounce back from stress and trauma,” says Charney. These include optimism (“We can actually train people to become more optimistic”), having a moral compass (“Altruism is very important”), identifying role models to help you get through tough times, and social support (“For some, it’s about having religion or spirituality”).

The lessons he’s learned over time have influenced him personally and professionally. “It has certainly changed my life. To become more resilient, you have to push yourself,” he explains. “Putting yourself in situations that are a little out of your comfort zone helps you develop a psychological toolbox.”

He says his research has impacted how he raised his kids. “I didn’t want them to have it too easy,” he says. “We’ve gone on adventure trips, camping, hiking, and kayaking in remote regions of the world. My children have learned how to challenge themselves through sports and adventure and to give back to others.”

His research on resilience also has impacted his work as dean. “I teach my faculty that unexpected problems arise, and that you have to rally the troops in challenging times.”

This lesson could apply to physicians in practice today. According to Charney, medical education is headed for major change largely influenced by the revolution in genomic medicine and information technology. He proudly notes that Mount Sinai is “probably investing more in genetics than any other medical school in terms of research, imparting genomic information, and using electronic medical records to educate doctors.”

He adds, “Mid- and late-career physicians probably have not been well-grounded in genomics, as their usefulness in the clinical practice of medicine is just beginning to emerge. But the pace of that impact will pick up dramatically.”

He says that practicing physicians “will have to become educated in genomic medicine, for it will ultimately impact how they assess risks based on genetics, and how they choose different treatments based on genetic profiles.”

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