‘It’s non-negotiable’: New medical school dean values diversity

New medical school dean, Dr. Julie G. Pilitsis, says only 5% of board-certified neurosurgeons are women.


Dr. Julie G. Pilitsis. Photo courtesy of Albany Medical College.

Nadia Gordon, Contributing Writer

Around 10 years ago, Dr. Julie G. Pilitsis set herself a career goal to become a dean. Now, she is preparing for her new role as dean of Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at FAU.

With a platform advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Dr. Pilitsis said her priority is to have an impact that will help the future of the South Florida community.

“It’s non-negotiable. Everything has to be in line with that mission,” Dr. Pilitsis said. 

Dr. Pilitsis said the needs of people may differ in South Florida from upstate New York, but her reasoning for wanting to be a dean remains the same⁠— to empower. 

“If you look at the population of South Florida and what it’s gonna look like in five, 10 years, we have to make sure that all the people that are in the medical college and all of our students, all our staff, all our faculty are representative of the population and the community we serve,” Dr. Pilitsis said. “Without doing those things, we can’t make a dent in health disparities.” 

Dr. Pilitisis currently works as division chief of functional neurosurgery and chair and professor of the basic neuroscience department at Albany Medical College (AMC) in New York. She will begin her new role as dean of FAU’s College of Medicine effective Feb. 2022. 

She said her role as a department chair ultimately allowed her to act as a “mini dean” and gain experience in leadership. 

In her roles at AMC, she has been a part of the creation of the next-gen neuroscience program in 2020 that acts as educational guidance geared toward those who are historically underrepresented in medicine. Additionally, she aided in the formation of the junior faculty development program for the whole college. This is a year-long curriculum designed to enhance the academic and professional development of assistant professors in clinical and basic science during the early stages of their careers. 

Dr. Pilitsis has had a mentor from her own institution, Dr. Vincent Verdile. He has been dean at AMC for over 20 years and is set to retire on Dec 31. According to the Times Union, he is known for helping to diversify AMC’s academic leadership, which is one of Dr. Pilitsis’ goals. 

“Through her hard work, dedication, and vision, she has garnered the requisite skills to fulfill all the roles that the dean of a medical school needs to be successful,” Dr. Verdile said. “It has been my privilege to guide her journey to this new and exciting role at FAU.” 

After five years as a department chair, Dr. Pilitsis said she is ready for a dean role.

“When I read the position specification [at FAU], I said, ‘wow, this is the right job,’”  Dr. Pilitsis said. “This one particularly resonated with me⁠— and because of the passion that the school has for diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Dr. Pilitis said only 5% of board-certified neurosurgeons are women. This fact is one of the reasons she strives for diversity and inclusion within medicine and implementing it in education. 

“There have been issues with my gender and the diversity throughout my career,” Dr. Pilitsis said. “I appreciate that those issues are different when you’re talking about gender, racial, and ethnic diversity, but it’s really important to have empathy, establish a sense of belonging, and establish a sense of empowerment for all groups.” 

According to Kristen Zuloagam, director of Graduate Studies, 66% of current graduate students at AMC identify as underrepresented in medicine. 

Hannah Phelps is the president of the pre-medical chapter of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) at FAU. AMSA is the largest pre-medical organization at the university. It has around 10 different groups that students can join relating to specific sectors in medicine. 

Phelps said that diversity is important within medicine because each person holds a different perspective based on their background. 

“In medicine, you are dealing with people,” Phelps said. “When you have a patient, you want that patient to be able to relate to at least one member of the healthcare team.” 

As president of AMSA, Phelps also emphasized the importance of quality leadership.

“As dean of the college of medicine or any college, it’s important that they’re able to show integrity, responsibility, and leadership, all of those different skills and values so that their team can look up to them and follow suit,” Phelps said.

In her new dean role, Dr. Pilitsis will lead the College of Medicine’s research focus areas, which include healthy aging, geriatrics and neuroscience, chronic pain and opioid use, and genomics and precision medicine.

She said she wants the college’s first investments to be in neuroscience, population, health, and cancer because the university has identified those as priorities. 

“I have the building blocks and it’s just doing it on a scale with different players,” Dr. Pilitsis said. “I really want to do a deep dive into understanding the culture of South  Florida when I get there.

For more information about Dr. Pilitsis and her upcoming role, click here. 

Nadia Gordon is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Nadia at [email protected]