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Julie Byerley, MD, MPH, assumes duties as Geisinger executive vice president and chief academic officer and president and dean of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine

Dr. Julie Byerley experienced an epiphany in her first year as a high school physics teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. “This was in 1992,” she said. “It was the peak of teen pregnancy rates and HIV was new on the scene. I was in a ‘high needs’ school, which is where I wanted to be since my dream was to inspire students, especially girls, to pursue careers in science. I wanted to teach, but I was distracted by how many girls in my classes were experiencing pregnancy and by my fear that my students would end up with HIV, which at the time could be a fatal diagnosis.”

The alarm she experienced was so great, Dr. Byerley changed her curriculum plan. “I found myself compelled to teach more about health and well-being than about how many electrons circle the nucleus of various elements,” she said. “I ended up learning about possibilities in public health and medicine. So, I went back to college to get the prerequisites necessary for medical school.”

Ever since, Dr. Byerley’s career has been dedicated to shaping education that results in better public health.

Shaped by experiences

Dr. Byerley said her mother was her earliest role model and inspiration. It was she who made her daughter dream of encouraging girls in sciences. “My biggest influence was my mom,” she said. “My younger brother, Chris (Story) and I were always encouraged by my parents to be involved in academics and sports. For example, there was a YBA basketball league in Lynchburg (Va.) that was targeted to boys, but my mom signed me up. I think I was the first girl in the 5-year-old basketball league. She was an advocate who believed I should do whatever I wanted. She had high expectations and still has them today."

Thanks to the support and encouragement of her parents, Dr. Byerley went to Rhodes College, a small liberal arts school in Memphis, on a generous scholarship. There she played Division III volleyball for a year and majored in physics, intending to teach high school.

Her first job in Charleston changed her trajectory, but not, as she discovered, her love of teaching.

A heart-wrenching decision

The Charleston revelation led Dr. Byerley to Duke University School of Medicine where she also spent a year at the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) School of Public Health studying maternal/child health. When she left teaching, Dr. Byerley believed her mind was made up that she would be involved in direct primary care as a pediatrician. “When I got my master’s, I started to consider the multiple ways I could have an impact on raising healthy families,” she said, adding that her indecision increased during her year as chief resident in pediatrics at UNC.

“During my chief resident year, I did a lot of teaching and curriculum development and fell in love with medical education.”

She came to believe she could do the most good and have the greatest impact by influencing medical education. “I think from perspective of child and adolescent development all the time,” she said. “There’s a saying in pediatrics: Children are not little adults. That’s true, but all adults are big children. If we think about what’s good for children and adolescents, then we think about what’s good for all of us.”

After much soul searching, Dr. Byerley decided to remain in academic medicine as an assistant professor at UNC, an institution she remained at for the next 20 years, rising to vice dean for academic affairs when an intriguing opportunity arose in the Northeast.

The opportunity of a lifetime

Dr. Byerley said the chance to lead Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine excited her, even though Scranton’s famously snowy winters “scare her a little.”

“Geisinger provides a unique opportunity to have an impact,” she said. “I’ve been very interested in what today’s doctors need in their portfolio and skill set to really make a difference in modern healthcare delivery. There’s more in medicine to learn than one can ever know, so we must set priorities about what we are going to demand from each student and how we will prepare them to serve patients and populations. Geisinger is very pragmatic about how we take good care of people. There’s a great willingness to think differently and to innovate. We agree that we must think from the patient’s perspective about what making better health easy looks like.”

The many similarities between UNC and Geisinger Commonwealth will help ease her transition, Dr. Byerley said. “UNC is a public school and we always acknowledged that we are ‘by and for the people.’ Geisinger Commonwealth may be a private school, but it is by and for the community. The populations are also very similar. Both have urban centers but also a lot of rural areas and a need to produce a workforce that will serve those communities and understand their needs.”

At UNC, Dr. Byerley was a key player in developing and expanding programs like the Office of Rural Initiatives, with pipeline programs where students receive enhanced training to serve rural populations. “Health professions education is really workforce development. When we think like that, when we pragmatically approach the needs of the community, we succeed in education. I am very excited to continue to advance Geisinger’s progress to that end.”

In addition to her Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine responsibilities, as chief academic officer of Geisinger, Dr. Byerley will oversee the management of educational experiences for learners throughout Geisinger, including graduate medical education, nursing, pharmacy, advanced practitioners and other health professions.

She will also be responsible for overseeing Geisinger’s research environment that includes more than 50 full-time research faculty and more than 30 clinician investigators.

“I look forward to continuing to engage at the national level in medical education and in how medical schools can make a difference and an impact on population health,” she said. “I want to tell the story of what’s happening at Geisinger. The system invested in a school the community built – it’s a win/win/win. With system support and community engagement, there’s so much potential for learners to be supported and then to want to stay and serve the region.”

Julie Byerley, MD, MPH
Julie Byerley, MD, MPH