The force is with her

Melina Kibbe
Photography courtesy of
University of Virginia

Kibbe is dean at the University of Virginia and editor in chief of JAMA Surgery.

Katharine McGinigle watches the auction’s emcee waive a lighted wand around as he addresses the crowd, and her 5-year-old comes to mind. “Wow, if my son could have a lightsaber like that one—” McGinigle whispers to her friend. “It’s just like Luke Skywalker’s!”

The two women, both surgery professors at the University of North Carolina, chuckle at the thought. Then, as the gala benefit nears its end, McGinigle’s friend bids on an item and says, “I’ll double it if I can have that lightsaber for her son.”

It was a few years ago that Melina Kibbe (Res ’02) paid for that lightsaber. The proceeds for the 2019 gala helped fund a scholarship for students pursuing vascular surgery. And the lightsaber knighted a young Jedi.

In fall 2021, Kibbe left UNC, where she was surgery department chair, to become the 17th dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. She is also chief health affairs officer for UVA Health.

The auction bid wasn’t out of character for Kibbe, says McGinigle, who points out that Kibbe’s interest in supporting others as they pursue their dreams sets her apart from the pack.

“She fundamentally cares for and finds pride in the successes of the people she leads.”

Kibbe looks back fondly at her time in Pittsburgh, where she spent eight years (1994-2002) completing her residency and research fellowship and where she trained with the likes of Edith Tzeng, UPMC Professor of Surgery, and Timothy Billiar, chair and the George Vance Foster Professor. Even as dean at UVA, she still maintains a clinical practice and NIH-funded research portfolio for developing novel therapies for patients with vascular disease (including nitric oxide therapies). She holds 13 patents or provisional patents. In 2009, President Obama recognized her with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She’s past president of the Association for Academic Surgery and the Association of VA Surgeons and is editor-in-chief of the journal JAMA Surgery.

Kibbe’s captaining tendencies surfaced early on. She recalls organizing dodge ball and Marco Polo games as a kid. “I was always leading groups of people,” she says with a laugh. Later as a young professional at Pitt and UPMC, she took it upon herself to organize resident rotation schedules and work with trainees and faculty to make sure everyone’s needs were addressed.

Becoming a med school dean became a career aspiration for Kibbe. What better way to help young people as they strive to become the best doctors they can be?

Allan Tsung (Res ’08) got to know Kibbe during their residencies here. In June, he joined her at UVA—leaving Ohio State’s College of Medicine, where he was chief of the surgical oncology division—to become UVA’s chair of surgery.

Tsung says he welcomed the opportunity to associate professionally with Kibbe again, in part because of her extraordinary capacities as a surgeon-scientist. Generally, he says, surgeon-scientists excel more in either research or clinical practice, but Kibbe “straddles both realms well.” And she leads by example, he notes.

When Kibbe became UNC’s surgery chair in 2016, she recognized that her stature had national ramifications: Only about 6 percent of chairs of surgery at U.S. medical schools are women. About 18 percent of med school deans are women.

She hopes the route she’s taken will make leadership paths in medicine seem less daunting to women:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”