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Building a championship team — in dermatology

Since becoming chair of dermatology in 2010, Stanford's Paul Khavari has built his department like a sports team owner looking for winning seasons.

As the Golden State Warriors roll into another impressive season, I keep thinking about a conversation I had with dermatologist Paul Khavari, MD, PhD during the off-season.

At 6 feet 6 inches, Khavari could blend into a crowd of NBA players and look down on many — the Warrior’s Steph Curry is only 6 foot 3 — but more than that, Khavari thinks like a team owner. Since becoming chair of Stanford’s Department of Dermatology in 2010, he’s built his roster aggressively and methodically like a owner looking for winning seasons and championship rings. Khavari wants to build a dynasty. He's shown above with the dermatology team.

Year after year, Khavari recruits, signs, and works to retain talent to make sure Stanford has multiple experts in each dermatological subspecialty. To run with the hoops analogy, he wants the talent on the bench to equal the starting lineup. He wants more than one or two stars surrounded by supporting players.

“With the Warriors, you have this unique set of players,” Khavari said. “Yes, Kevin Durant can go somewhere else and Steph Curry can go somewhere else, but would they win a championship there away from the group? Probably not, just by themselves. In Oklahoma, Russell Westbrook is amazing, same for Kawhi Leonard with the Spurs but they haven’t recently had the ensemble cast to make a championship team.”

Khavari’s roster is 53 names long (up from 22 when he became chair). For starters, it includes physician-scientists like Youn Kim, MD, who’s changing the way dermatologists understand cutaneous lymphoma. And Susan Swetter, MD, who wrote the national guidelines for treating melanoma; Jean Tang, MD, PhD, who is improving care for patients with genetic skin diseases; David Fiorentino, MD, PhD, who is empowering patients with dermatomyositis with knowledge about their individualized risks in this cancer-associated condition; Anthony Oro, who identified genetic mutations that allow cancer cells to evade treatment; and Howard Chang, MD, PhD, who’s creating a GPS-like system to help scientists better understand the dark matter of the human genome that is noncoding RNA. And that's just a few of the team's standouts.

Individually, each member of the department is a star, and to Khavari’s mind, what really sets them apart is the work they do together. As a group, they fill the scoreboard with high-impact (three-point!) research papers. They take pride in training both future clinicians and future scientists, Khavari said. And they consistently partner with other School of Medicine departments, all while keeping their patients as a top priority.

“We aim to take the synergistic excellence within this group of exceptional Stanford faculty and apply it to benefit humanity by discovering new scientific knowledge, by transforming patient care, and by training a diverse set of future leaders that will propel biomedical progress for generations,” Khavari said.

Naturally, other academic institutions see what Khavari built and try to recruit his players to their teams.

“If you split them up and send them off to other places, it would just be like taking a franchise player in the NBA and sending him out on his own,” Khavari said. “You know Kevin Durant is an amazing player but he played a season in Seattle and eight in Oklahoma before he won a championship. Until he joined the Warriors, he didn’t have the team around him.”

And in medicine, like basketball, having the right team makes all the difference.

Previously: Genome architecture guides stem cell fate, Stanford researchers find, Evaluating talent: Comparing the residency match and the NFL draft and Quest for sleep unites Arianna Huffington, Andre Iguodala and Stanford students
Photo courtesy of Paul Khavari

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