Melina Kibbe, MD, ’03 GME, is no stranger to breaking glass ceilings. As a leader and a surgeon-scientist, she continues to prove that gender barriers are no match for her tenacity and passion.
After a nearly 13-year career at Northwestern, that passion and tenacity led her to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine (UNC) and Health Care System for a new role as the Zack D. Owens Distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Surgery. Kibbe is one of only sixteen women in the nation to hold that position.
“My life changed overnight when I assumed the role of chair of surgery. I went from being a practicing vascular surgeon, running my funded research lab and helping to promote research in my department, to running an entire department of surgery,” Kibbe says.
In her new position, Kibbe is leading a department of surgery that includes 9 divisions with 282 members, including 69 faculty members, 42 advanced practice providers, 83 residents and fellows, and 88 staff. Her focus for the department is supporting the school’s three missions: providing high quality clinical care, educating the next generation of surgeons and surgeon-scientists, and being at the forefront of innovation and discovery research for surgical disease.
Until she accepted the position at UNC, Kibbe had spent her entire faculty career at Northwestern. After completing a one-year fellowship in the Department of Surgery in 2003, she decided to stay on as a faculty member specifically so she could be mentored by Bill Pearce, MD, ’82 GME, the Violet R. and Charles A. Baldwin Professor of Vascular Surgery. Kibbe went on to hold numerous positions in the department, as well as several appointments at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Northwestern University. She remains an adjunct professor in the Department of Surgery at Northwestern.
“It was incredibly hard to leave a place that I really do love, especially with the great leadership team at Northwestern, my colleagues and my mentors,” Kibbe says. “At Northwestern, I was helping fellow scientists at the department-level and forming collaborations across the university, and I knew this was something I wanted to do more of. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to help others figure out how to pursue their ideas and see them come to fruition.”
Kibbe attributes much of her success to her dedicated mentors and her unwavering passion for vascular surgery. “I have been blessed throughout my career with mentors who have been heavily invested in my own career development and success. They have really shaped how I mentor others,” Kibbe says. “My time at Northwestern prepared me incredibly well for my next leadership challenge.”
Kibbe has mentored more than 89 medical students, PhD students and residents, and has received 18 teaching awards, including the Gender Equity Award from the American Medical Women’s Association student chapter at Northwestern and the George H. Joost Outstanding Teaching Award.
As chair of Surgery at UNC, she will mentor on a much larger scale. She plans to use many of the best practices she learned at Northwestern. One of those is remaining in contact with every single one of the trainees who worked in her lab, from undergraduate students to medical students, PhDs to postdocs.
Her advice to young scientists interested in pursuing medicine or research as a career: “Follow your passion. If you are passionate about what you are working on, then you are going to have tremendous career satisfaction, and when that happens you do amazing things.”
In the lab, Kibbe’s research focuses on developing novel therapies for patients with vascular disease while simultaneously studying the mechanism of how these therapies impact the vascular wall. She is currently the principal investigator on three National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 awards, a VA Merit award and a Department of Defense award.
She continues to serve as a consultant on several NIH awards with Northwestern faculty, including Mary McDermott, MD, to evaluate novel therapies for patients with peripheral arterial disease. Together with Teresa Woodruff, PhD, Kibbe is also a nationally recognized advocate for sex inclusion in biomedical research. In 2016, their efforts led to new policies to include women in basic science and clinical research studies from the NIH and Food and Drug Administration.
Kibbe’s bibliography includes more than 230 peer-reviewed manuscripts, review articles and book chapters. She has received numerous awards, including, in 2010, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists in the early stages of their independent research careers. Most recently, she was elected into the National Academy of Medicine.
“I am so proud of the research we are conducting, and I am very proud of the trainees who have come through the lab and are now in their own faculty positions,” Kibbe says. “Every single one of my trainees has gone on to an academic setting, which makes me extremely proud.”