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Dr. Allison Brashear knew the challenges would be difficult and many when she became chair of the neurology department at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The budget was in the red, the long-term faculty members had been dedicating fewer hours to clinic duty, and the department’s research efforts were no longer leading the field.
Brashear, with a bring-it-on attitude, set out to remake the department. Over the next 14 years she improved the finances, boosted the number of faculty from 17 to nearly 60, increased research grant funding by tens of millions of dollars, appointed women to senior leadership positions and expanded access for neurology patients.
“She is an excellent change agent,” said Doug Edgeton, who served on the 2005 Wake Forest search committee that discovered Brashear, then a professor of neurology at Indiana University. “She doesn’t back down,” he said. “She’s got a backbone, but she’s nice about it.”
Brashear takes over for Lars Berglund, the vice dean of research who has been serving as the interim School of Medicine dean since April 2017.
UC Davis School of Medicine doesn’t have the same obstacles Brashear faced in her previous job. But the school nonetheless has its own challenges – such as a desire to raise its profile on the national level, compete with larger schools for talented medical students and update the curriculum.
Current and former colleagues who are close to Brashear are confident she’s up for the task.
“Allison is a leader for these times in medicine and health care,” said Darrell Kirch, the president emeritus of the American Association of Medical Colleges. “She has great skills at analyzing problems, facing them squarely and developing real-world solutions,” he said. “While she is a very warm and engaging person, she also can be rigorous and even tough when it’s important.”
Introduced to patient care at early age
Brashear, a third-generation physician, pursued a career in medicine “because I really like to solve problems.”
Dinner-table talk as a child in Indianapolis exposed Brashear to her parents’ stories about their work day – her father was in academic medicine, and her mother had a Ph.D in marriage and family counseling. The topics often revolved around the importance of providing high-quality care for patients.
That’s when Brashear knew she wanted to be a doctor and combine her love of science with her desire to improve the lives of people.
“I went into neurology because you can take the physical exam, the patient's history and put them together and develop a pathway forward to solve problems,” she said.
Her passion for research was later solidified after illness struck her family.
“As the daughter of a mother who passed away from breast cancer, and my mother-in-law died of Alzheimer's disease, our family is acutely aware of the importance of research in patient care, and how research advances the care of patients and the impact it can have on those diseases, and on a family.”
Brashear majored in chemistry at DePauw University in Indiana in 1983, then attended Indiana University School of Medicine where she stayed for residency before becoming a tenured professor of neurology.
Expertise in rare disorders
At Indiana University, Brashear became an international expert in rare neurologic disorders such as a unique genetic form of dystonia Parkinsonism known as Rapid‐Onset Dystonia‐Parkinsonism, or RDP. She also was the lead principal investigator in many multicenter trials for the treatment of cervical dystonia and spasticity, which led to FDA approval of three medications helping patients with these neuromuscular disorders.
The results of her research and patient care have brought great satisfaction.
“The research I've done has improved the lives of patients, particularly patients who suffer from stroke.”
She recalls one patient “who went from having her hand fisted to being able to have her hand open, and then she was able to care for her young baby, where she wasn't able to do that before with her stroke.”
Brashear increasingly took leadership roles at Indiana University where she was tasked with developing a major clinical research strategic plan for the school of medicine, which eventually lead to a significant grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“She was able to bring together large groups of people to orchestrate a very comprehensive strategic analysis and evaluation,” said then-mentor Ora Pescovitz, who is now president of Oakland University in Michigan. “I believe she is a quadruple threat,” Pescovitz said. “She has excellence in four domains that are important to academic medicine: patient care, education, research and she has tremendous business acumen.”
A passion for troubleshooting
At Wake Forest University, where she served from 2005 until this summer, Brashear earned a reputation as a troubleshooter. She also inspired the neurology department to become more efficient, said Edgeton, the former search committee member who oversaw the medical school’s business office and is now president of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Brashear helped set up new clinics, increased patient satisfaction and lifted the medical school’s reputation.
Brashear, a mother of two and wife of an attorney who was a stay-home dad, also made time to earn her MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in 2012.
Transforming the neurology department took many skillsets, Brashear’s friends and colleagues say, including the ability to listen and keep an open mind.
“When it comes to setting priorities, she doesn’t have a built-in loyalty to one perspective or one faction, but rather she thinks about what is going to be in the best interest of the overall institution and the overall institution’s mission,” said Robert Golden, the medical school dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Brashear said one of her priorities at UC Davis will be to help students and residents understand that medical education needs to keep up with the rapidly changing health care environment, which often means learning how to provide excellent care outside of the traditional inpatient settings.
She looks forward to advancing leadership for young adults, women and underrepresented minorities, and becoming as active in Sacramento as she was in Winston-Salem.
Brashear lives with her husband, Clifford Ong, and their two rescue dogs, a beagle named Hobbes and a border collie named Patches. The couple’s son, Richard, enters Columbia University’s law school next month. Their daughter, Diane, will be a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Brashear is eager to meet with faculty, department chairs and students, whom, she noted, are energized about improving health in the community.
“One of my things is, really, to bring people together and then move that group to improve health,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things that makes being a dean so gratifying.”