Among Arthur S. Levine’s fondest memories of his Cleveland Heights childhood are the hours he spent with his cousin Don Glaser, a decade his senior. As local steelworkers leaned into the war effort, Don’s parents, William and Lena Glaser, put in long hours at their mom-and-pop deli on the industrial side of town; extended family played a supporting role. “Every night, Don came to our house,” Levine recalls. “We would play together, eat dinner.”
Levine was 16 when Glaser, by then a junior member of the University of Michigan faculty, invented the bubble chamber, an apparatus that transformed the study of atomic particles and nuclear physics. Eight years later, when Glaser was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physics, Levine was in his first semester at Chicago Medical School.
In the next decade, Levine would earn his MD and board certification in pediatrics, complete a fellowship in hematology and oncology, and join the National Cancer Institute as a U.S. Public Health Service clinical associate. There he quickly ascended the ranks of physician-investigators, carrying out one of the first systematic investigations on the prevention and treatment of opportunistic infections in patients with cancer, as well as, with his colleagues, the first genetic and physical mapping of SV40, a mammalian tumor virus. Glaser, meanwhile, pivoted from physics to molecular biology, then launched Cetus Corp., the Bay Area biotech that would introduce polymerase chain reaction to amplify DNA and develop the cancer therapies interleukin and interferon. Says Levine: “We had a shared sense of how one contributes to the well-being of humanity.”
Around that time, Levine recalls having the transcendent, “F. Scott Fitzgerald moment” that would set the arc of his career. Lying awake at 3 a.m.—at about the same age Glaser had been when he met the king of Sweden—he took stock of his skills and aspirations. “Donald was a great scientist,” he says. “I thought I might not be a great scientist, but I could be great at the kind of leadership that would further science and medicine, and, hopefully, do it in a way that is grand and elegant.”
Observers take issue with Levine’s stingy scientific self-assessment—he’s authored or coauthored 280 peer-reviewed papers, including early reports on naturally occurring viral recombinant DNAs and the molecular mechanisms that maintain the fidelity of the genome. He and colleagues discovered the first known protein that recognizes when DNA is damaged, for example by sunlight, and then, with other proteins, repairs the damage.
On his leadership potential, however, they heartily concur. Exhibit A: In 21 years as Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, Levine has propelled Pitt Med from a good school with some well-known programs to a national treasure.
Exhibit B: In 2017, Levine got a call from “Building 1” at the NIH, asking if he would chair a blue ribbon strategic planning panel, “Advancing Biomedical Research in a Data-Driven Era” for the National Library of Medicine. The resulting report informed the current NIH strategic plan.
“Arthur Levine is a visionary and an inspiration to everybody in academic medicine,” says Lloyd B. Minor, a member of Pitt Med’s Board of Visitors and dean of Stanford Medicine. “He has helped usher in the future of medicine—most notably through his emphasis on facilitating and supporting basic science research.”
Since he was hired in 1998, Levine has overseen the creation of 10 academic departments and 10 new major centers and institutes. Of the medical school’s 31 current department chairs, he participated in recruiting and hiring 28—including José-Alain Sahel, perhaps the world’s top ophthalmologist physician-scientist. All five deans of the other health science schools have also been appointed during his watch. He’s simultaneously seen to a massive expansion of infrastructure—several million square feet of new construction and 10 core facilities—to support the research enterprise. Perhaps Levine’s greatest point of pride, however, has been the sustained rise in funds awarded to Pitt by the NIH, with the University consistently placing among the top five institutions in the nation, driven primarily by grants to the medical school, even as total NIH grant funding became more competitive.
Professor of critical care medicine and pediatrics Ann Thompson joined Pitt’s faculty in 1981; in 2014, Levine appointed her vice dean. “In the time he’s been here,” she says, “the institution has gone from kind of middle of the pack to one of the very best.”
When Levine arrived in Pittsburgh, UPMC—the School of Medicine’s clinical counterpart and a vital financial partner—was under rapid expansion; as a consequence, clinical and academic faculty were joining Pitt at a brisk clip. Not everyone was happy in that growth environment; and while his predecessor, Thomas Detre, had focused on building Pitt’s clinical reputation, Levine was intent on cultivating similar excellence in the basic sciences. From the start, says Jeffrey Romoff, UPMC’s president and CEO, Levine has proven more than equal to the task. “Dr. Levine has navigated virtually every issue that emerged in the course of his tenure—which was mine as well—with aplomb and intelligence,” he says. “He is fundamentally a gentleman and has a way of dealing with the subjects and the substance, rather than dealing with the noise.”
To wit: One of Levine’s first official acts was to mandate that all faculty provide his office with copies of their latest peer-reviewed papers. “I had assumed that was mostly for record-keeping and reference,” says Jeremy Berg, Pitt’s associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning, whom Levine recruited from the NIH in 2011. “It turns out, he takes [them] home and at least reads the abstract.”
In 2018, those late-night reading sessions featured 1,800 papers—double the number published by faculty in 1999. “I’ve always been amazed that whenever I mentioned a faculty member, he knew who they were, what they were working on, and how they were doing,” says Berg, formerly director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “I couldn’t figure out how he managed to get so much information into his working memory.” The editor of this magazine recalls—every few months, for years—receiving reams of manuscripts the dean had identified as mutually interesting, with apologies that he might be missing some.
Such an egalitarian interest in the pursuits of all faculty, from the newest assistant professor to longtime department chairs, is rare, says Peter Strick, founding scientific director of Pitt’s Brain Institute; Levine recruited Strick in 2000. “Art knows everyone on a first-name basis, follows their careers.”
And Levine isn’t finished when he’s read an abstract. Frequently, he picks up the phone to alert an author to another member of the faculty with complementary interests, a relevant animal model, or an apparatus that could further their work. “A lot of what I’ve devoted my effort to is encouraging people to socialize,” he says, “to take advantage of one another’s brains and their laboratories.”
That reach is not limited to national boundaries; the med school has significant clinical and research partners in Paris, Beijing, and Palermo. (For 10 years, Levine served as scientific director of the Ri.MED Foundation, established by Pitt, UPMC, and Italian and regional Sicilian government entities to promote biomedical advances.)
While Levine relishes his self-appointed role as intellectual matchmaker, he’s also formalized support for mentorship and collaboration throughout the School of Medicine. He’s long advanced women in academic medicine. He appointed a number of “first” women department chairs, deans, and directors for Pitt’s health sciences. And faculty development programs launched at his behest introduce junior hires to their counterparts across departments, coach them on the finer points of the tenure process and lab management, and connect them with senior colleagues who take a personal interest in their success. Levine, himself, hosts a monthly seminar for junior faculty from across the University. “He really wants to get people the exposure they need,” says Berg. “He makes a commitment to both benefiting the careers of young people and also maximizing the investment the school makes when they’re hired.”
Levine’s deep insights into the research enterprise have also been a boon for Pitt’s recruitment of department chairs, institute directors, and the like. “His command of the range of important research issues within medicine is greater than that of anyone else I’ve ever known,” says Ann Thompson. And when Levine brings senior scientists to Pittsburgh, they tend to stick around. “He can make sure that they’re going to fit into this larger institution,” she says.
Angela Gronenborn came to Pitt in 2004 as founding chair of the Department of Structural Biology (one of the country’s few such departments in a med school). Since then, the UPMC Rosalind Franklin Professor of Structural Biology has stocked the basement of the University’s Biomedical Science Tower 3 with a fleet of nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, cryogenically cooled electron microscopes, the array of gadgets used in X-ray crystallography, and a team of scientists who know how to use them. “Art has exquisite taste when it comes to science,” says Gronenborn; those are almost the exact words used by dozens interviewed for this feature.
As a first-time department chair, Gronenborn asked Levine what professional development she should pursue to make the most of the opportunity, one still rarely afforded to women in the basic sciences. “He looked me straight in the eye, and he said, ‘You know what you’re doing—you go for what you think is best.’” His commitment has been unwavering, she says, whether she was requesting funds for new equipment, programmatic support, or feedback on a faculty search. “It always boils down to, What is the best science you can do?”
Back in 1977, Levine sat on the National Cancer Institute’s Working Group on Education and Training. Two years later, as the committee concluded its study, the New England Journal of Medicine published “The Clinical Investigator as an Endangered Species,” the first in what would become an increasingly strident series of reports on the shrinking ranks of physician-investigators—doctors best able to figure out how to bring breakthroughs in the lab to the benefit of patients.
By the time Levine arrived at Pitt, the school had a solid culture of medical student research participation. But it was optional. In 2004, Levine announced that, henceforward, every incoming student would complete an original project spanning the entirety of their enrollment. Despite an initial freedom to pursue anything from basic research to clinical research, even creative pursuits like novels and film projects exploring the medical enterprise, the response was not universally positive.
Levine didn’t balk at resistance from faculty and students, says Steven Kanter, who was vice dean at the time. And while the dean welcomed feedback to refine the policy, he didn’t waver. “It was no different from the other kinds of things we did over the years,” says Kanter, who now heads the Association of Academic Health Centers. “You have to be open and transparent and have a good, solid idea that’s backed up with sound arguments. In a way, it’s a privilege to be able to talk it through with very bright students and faculty—the idea gets better than it was originally.”
Still, when David Hackam was summoned to Art Levine’s office seven years later, the newly tenured professor of surgery and of cell biology and physiology felt an acute sense of dread.
“Getting a call from the dean is rarely a promotion,” says Hackam. But that’s what Levine had in mind. As an assistant professor, Hackam had launched START, a Department of Surgery program to engage students in clinical and research training. Levine had read the papers—both the young professor’s and those authored by START participants—and he sought someone with the vision to propel the scholarly research project into its second decade. He invited Hackam to serve as associate dean for medical student research, then gave him carte blanche to invigorate the program. He counseled Hackam to hold steady as he imposed more rigor and introduced new coursework to help students make the most of the experience.
“Art focused on his vision, that this would be the jewel in the crown of the medical school,” says Hackam. “He said, ‘Just stick with it, and they will come because of it, and not in spite of it.’” Today, requirements for medical students to pursue original research abound nationwide. “If duplication is the best form of flattery,” says Kanter, “Pittsburgh was flattered.”
These days, Hackam is the Garrett Professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he is also pediatric surgeon-in-chief and codirector of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
“I learned a great deal from him about leadership,” says Hackam of Levine. “Art is a master of deploying subtlety and a master at using a sledgehammer when he needs it.” The sledgehammer was rarely wielded, in Hackam’s experience, in part because Levine has a knack for threading the needle himself. “He’s very wise and very smart, obviously, but also learned; incredibly so,” says Hackam. “Many leaders expect others to solve problems, but Art has a tremendous ability to come up with innovative solutions.”
Consider this: In 2006, the Journal of the American Medical Association published “Health Industry Practices that Create Conflicts of Interest,” coauthored by a mix of industry and academic medical center leaders. Soon after, Levine and Marshall Webster, then president of the University of Pittsburgh Physicians, chartered an industry relations committee to develop a policy governing everything from free lunches for medical students and the presence of sales reps in patient care areas to the distribution of drug samples, as well as industry-funded continuing education, ghostwriting, and faculty consulting.
That year, the biomedical industry spent more than $25 billion marketing to doctors, including $18 billion in free samples. The trick for the school would be preserving worthy upsides to the relationships—access to free samples for the neediest patients, plus clinical trials and other research partnerships—while curbing undue influence. Levine, whose first medical bag and
stethoscope were graduation gifts from
drug companies, demanded a proposal with teeth, complete with an actionable enforcement plan. To make sure he got it, he invited the University’s vice chancellor for research conduct and compliance (a former dean of the School of Pharmacy) and an associate dean for continuing medical education to cochair the committee.
“It was my feeling, and that of my colleagues, that we needed to have a very precise, declarative policy,” he said at the time. A few months after the policy went into effect, the American Medical Student Association awarded Pitt its Paul R. Wright Excellence in Medical Education Award, in recognition of the school’s commitment to professionalism, especially its initiatives to reduce pharmaceutical marketing influence.
Like the discussion around the scholarly research project, says Levine, the years of negotiation that led Pitt to institute one of the nation’s toughest industry policies reflects a mindset best articulated by 18th century English poet William Blake: “Without contraries is no progression.” (Levine has a deep appreciation for the humanities. He edited the Columbia Review as an undergraduate comparative literature major and aspiring poet.)
Conflicting counsel comes from scientists, lawyers, ethicists, entrepreneurs, and academicians, he notes. In the end, this is to Pitt’s benefit, he says: “It’s hard for the brain to balance two competing ideas. Nonetheless, it’s those competing ideas and our effort to balance them that leads to creativity and productivity.”
Eight years ago, Jeremy Berg came to Pitt as part of the recruitment of his wife, Wendie Berg, to Radiology. Since then, Jeremy Berg has witnessed Levine consult widely and dig deeply before charting a course of action. “I always got the impression that if I said, That’s a great idea! That’s brilliant! he’d say, You can do better than that.
“No one would ever accuse him of being a hand-wringer,” adds Berg. “But he’s not afraid to ask people their thoughts and to listen. He doesn’t cut people off in the middle of their thoughts and say, You’re wrong. He just takes it all in.”
Julie Freischlag, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health, dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine, and a member of Pitt Med’s Board of Visitors, notes Levine figured out “way ahead of the others” what sort of foundation and strong clinical partnership were needed to advance medicine: “All of us know that, in the next few years, unless you’re like Pitt with infrastructure and huge patient populations to study, you won’t be able to survive, support innovative research, promote health for your patients.”
“It is difficult to overstate Art Levine’s impact [here],” says Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “[It has] been nothing short of transformative for the University, the city of Pittsburgh, the region, and, in many ways, the broader fields of medicine and health today.”
In January 2019, Levine announced that he will step down from his leadership roles when a to-be-named replacement can step in. But don’t look for him on the golf course. “There’s no biology to retirement,” says Levine. “You never heard of a lion retiring. They get up and go to work every day—hunting, foraging, and killing. And they do that until they crawl under a rock and die. They don’t retire; neither should we.”
Levine has already established a laboratory in the University’s Brain Institute. “Art is fearless both as a scientist and as an administrator,” says Strick. The Levine lab will probe cellular processes that may give rise to Alzheimer’s, the disease that in 2013 killed Don Glaser and affects 5.8 million Americans. Getting to the roots of the disease is imperative, says Levine.
“Every trial has failed to alter the course of Alzheimer’s by the time symptoms manifest,” he says, noting that as other biomedical researchers make progress against cancer and heart disease, the risk of living long enough to develop Alzheimer’s will only increase. “We have to try to understand what’s causing the disease and prevent it.”
Strick expects a significant uptick in participation in Brain Institute projects as Levine expands his lab’s research portfolio: “There are very few people who can read a CV and understand the talent in young people as Art can.
“He’s truly a remarkable judge of scientific character and scientific future.”
The Big Ideas
How do you take a good med school and position it in the very top tier of research institutions? It seemed to happen naturally as Arthur Levine was pursuing some big ideas.
How? Elevate med student research by establishing mandatory 4-year scholarly project and O’Malley Research Awards. ◆ Present other formal opportunities like clinical and physician scientist training programs. ◆ Pair each med student with a patient, someone they’ll get to know over 4 years who’s dealing with a complex chronic disease. ◆ Support faculty excellence by training junior faculty on running successful labs, offering competitive bridge grants in response to difficult federal funding landscape, saluting and learning from master educators, and promoting diversity and inclusion.
How? Cultivate top talent and build enviable resources: Add 10 departments. ◆ Build on infrastructure — 3 new buildings, 3 additions, and counting. (That translates to several million square feet of new construction and renovations.) ◆ Expand core facilities. (Like imaging, genomics and other omics, . . .) ◆ Further strengthen data analytics corps and libraries. ◆ Establish 10 major centers and institutes. ◆ Start 7 new Phd programs. ◆ Look out for those just getting started in their careers, notably postdoctoral fellows. Establish office to support them.
How? Sponsor science festivals, senior vice chancellor lecture series, and other high-profile symposia. ◆ Publish Pitt Med magazine and other communications. ◆ Host lunches with med students. ◆ Read all faculty manuscripts. ◆ Champion university-wide efforts to commercialize discoveries. ◆ Point people toward potential collaborations and resources.
Pitt schools of the health sciences are among the finest in the nation. ◆ The School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences is in the top 5 percent of schools in the United States at which to study health professions according to College Factual. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked its physical therapy program 1st and 4 other SHRS programs in its top 7. ◆ In 2016, U.S. News ranked the School of Pharmacy 9th among 125 PharmD-granting institutions. ◆ Six School of Nursing programs were in the publication’s top 10 in 2017. And Pitt Nursing ranked 6th in federal research funding in 2018. ◆ Pitt Dental Medicine ranked 4th in federal funding for dentistry programs for 2017. ◆ Pitt Public Health is among the top schools in the country in research dollars per faculty member.
—By Erica Lloyd
—Illustrations by Frank Harris
—Design by Elena Cerri
—Alyce Palko contributed