Q & A with Alexander Chiu, M.D.

photo of Dr. Alex Chiu

Last year, Alexander Chiu became the Russell E. Bridwell, M.D., Chairman and Professor of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Chiu is a world-renowned surgeon of the nose, sinuses and skull base. After getting his medical degree at Albany Medical School in New York and doing his residency at Georgetown, he took a fellowship at Stanford. He then moved to the University of Pennsylvania where he directed a rhinology and skull base surgery fellowship program, and then headed back west to become founding chair of the otolaryngology/head and neck surgery department at the University of Arizona.

We caught up with Chiu to ask him about KU’s otolaryngology department, his leadership philosophy, and how he’s adjusting to life in the Midwest.

What drew you to otolaryngology and then to the University of Kansas?

Otolaryngology is a great field. It is a mixture of surgery and office-based care, where you can see immediate benefits from the work you do as well as develop long-term relationships with many of your patients. Academic otolaryngology is even more fun, as we have the good fortune of having really smart learners and faculty to work with. I have worked at a number of institutions and was drawn to KU by the reputation of its ENT department and the chance to work and learn from Doug Girod and Rob Simari.

You’ve been chair of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery for about a year now. What are you most excited about? What keeps you up at night?

We have a number of projects we are all working on. After my first month here, we had a department needs assessment and strategic planning session that we all participated in. From that day, we generated seven objectives that faculty, residents and staff are involved in – everything from clinic improvement to developing a focus in health care delivery research. We are all rowing in the same direction and have a clear idea of who we want to be and how we want to represent to the local and national community – and that is what I am most excited about.

I sleep well at night. When you have a great supportive team at work and at home, there is very little that can’t be overcome or worked out.

Tell us a little about your current research.

I am a rhinologist and skull base surgeon, and my career has revolved around the study of chronic sinusitis and outcomes related to the management of sinonasal tumors and anterior skull base lesions. We are starting a number of clinical trials, including a study looking at the effects of topical probiotics on the sinus microbiome and how it may affect wound healing following endoscopic sinus surgery.

But probably the most important thing I try to do is spending the time to mentor faculty and residents on their research projects. I am a firm believer that getting your faculty and residents engaged and excited about research is the key to having a successful academic department.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am a big fan of studying different leadership styles in business and applying them to our current environment in academic medicine. The days of autocratic leaders are over. Today’s department chair needs to be progressive – that means being inclusive in strategic planning, being a good listener, establishing a culture of community and making sure we have a shared mission. And once we have that in place, my job is to clear obstacles, mentor and get out of the way to let the faculty and residents shine.

Skip Garcia, my former boss at the University of Arizona, really influenced and shaped my leadership style. He was the senior vice president for health sciences at Arizona, had more than $50 million in NIH funding and was leading five different health schools but always made the time to listen and mentor. His biggest lesson to me was “your word is everything in academics.” I have taken that lesson to heart and try my best to be transparent and true to what I say to my co-workers and department.

What would people be most surprised to learn about you?

I was a third baseman in college (Union College in Schenectady, New York) and used to be 30 pounds heavier and a lot stronger back in the day.

How have you adjusted to living in the Midwest and in Kansas City?

My wife and I met when I was junior faculty at Penn and she was working in New York City as a financial analyst. We joke because after we got engaged, she moved down to Philly and for a woman who was born and raised in New York, Philly was like moving to the suburbs! When we left to go to Tucson, Arizona, it was like taking her to the moon. We loved our time in Arizona, but we were happy to come back closer to family and be a part of a younger, more family-friendly community. We love Kansas City. We have two boys who love their school, and we are making some really good friends. People are just so nice here!

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Golf, wine and dim sum. I don’t think you can do all three at once, but that would be pretty awesome if you could!