The 2010 “Technology for Life” research symposium, held Saturday, April 10, in Nichols Center, featured two prominent keynote speakers who have propelled their scientific backgrounds into careers with global impact:
Dr. William McClure, a noted plastic surgeon and humanitarian, is a partner at Napa Valley Plastic Surgery, Inc. A graduate of the University of California-San Diego medical school and Stanford University in plastic and general surgical training, McClure has served as chief of surgery at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa. McClure’s presentation, however, focused on his volunteer work with the group Interplast, doing reconstructive surgery on children in developing countries.
Over 25 years and through 55 missions in 14 countries, McClure has repaired cleft lips and palates, neurofibromas and burn scars. Such deformities often doom a child to a life of shame or debilitating impairment. Referring to the cultural superstitions around cleft lips, a deformity in one out of 100 births, McClure said, “The sad part is it takes only 30 to 45 minutes to repair the deformity and change this child’s life.”
McClure told his audience, “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was in high school.” But then a math teacher with a burn scar on one side of his head stirred “my first interest in plastic surgery.” During residency, he was assigned to a plastic surgery rotation with the opportunity to take care of children in Mexico. “Something clicked. That changed my life,” said McClure, who saw how a handful of instruments and 35 minutes could change the life of a child with a cleft lip.
The longer-term solution to surgical needs, however, is training physicians and nurses in developing countries to do the operations themselves. “Surgery is a skill,” said McClure. “You learn it by doing it and we teach by doing. If each trip I can train a physician, we get tremendous leverage.”
McClure, who has already traveled to Laos this year and has a trip to Mexico planned, has received several awards for his philanthropic work, and in 2005 met the Dalai Lama. His “life’s journey” advice to students considering medical careers is threefold: Look to the future while living in the moment, be willing to change course, and plant seeds today. He also encouraged everyone to get involved. “It doesn’t take wealth, academic standing or special skills to make a difference. They secret key is compassion,” he noted. “The Dalai Lama says that if we want to be happy in our life, we have to practice compassion.”
Dr. Christopher Gilbert is the vice president of science and technology at Keystone Dental, Inc. A graduate of the University of California-Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University in materials science, Gilbert has worked with McKinsey & Company, consulting with global biopharmaceutical clients on acquisitions and commercial strategy, and with Hologic, Inc.
Gilbert credited his early career inspiration to his father’s interest in bad science fiction, where fantastical micro-surgical tools and bionic eyes were part of the stories. Some of those medical devices, such as surgical robots and ocular implants, are now reality. Speaking about high-tech therapeutic devices such as pacemakers and small equipment like intravenous pumps, Gilbert said, “Medical technology has revolutionized health care since the 1960s. Discoveries improve lives; they change lives.”
With Hologic, Inc., Gilbert led the U.S. approval and launch of the Adiana permanent contraceptive device. A $210 billion industry with an expected growth rate of 6.5 percent, the medical device market comprises 25 percent of U.S. health care expenditures. Competitive and constantly changing, the highly regulated field interweaves the complexities of business, government, patients, physicians and advocacy groups. Gilbert encouraged students to take a variety of courses and take advantage of biomedical and business departments in college. “You need to interface with a wide range of people,” Gilbert advised.
Gilbert’s career began when a random application to a consulting firm ultimately led to his current position. “Believe in the extreme importance of serendipity in your career,” he said. “What kind of skills do you develop to take advantage of things that fall in your lap?” Gilbert said that the Bay Area economy encourages risks and accepts failure, out of which comes opportunity. “Failure will happen. It takes 10 to 12 years to take a product to market, and many of these fail.”
Noting the interdisciplinary nature of the field, Gilbert counseled, “Many of the skills you are now developing in science will serve you in the future. Many of the problem-solving skills I developed in the sciences have served me well in the business world.”