I AM UAA: Jane Shelby, Ph.D. km

November 6, 2012

I AM UAA: Dr. Jane Shelby, Ph.D.Director of Alaska WWAMI School of Medical Education
Hometown: Powell, Wyoming
Fun Fact: Her great-grandparents homesteaded in Powell over 100 years ago and her family still owns and operates a farm there.

Jane Shelby is in her element. Not only professionally speaking—a former associate professor of surgery turned director of UAA’s School of Medical Education (WWAMI)—but also personally in the scope of her relationship to rural health care, which is the cornerstone of WWAMI program-wide.

“I’ve always had an interest in rural frontier health because I could see it firsthand growing up in Wyoming,” Jane says. “For as long as I can remember, until about the time Wyoming became a part of the WWAMI program, if you needed anything significant related to health care, we went from Powell to Billings, Montana. Now Powell is a major WWAMI training site with wonderful facilities. I would consider retiring there, it’s that good.”

Later in life, via her post-secondary and graduate education at the University of Utah (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate) as well as private and academic medical positions in Montana, Jane was recruited to be the interim executive director of health sciences at Montana State University. And under its auspices, there was WWAMI.

So although new to UAA, she’s not new to WWAMI, which spans five states (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho).

“WWAMI has pioneered this model of decentralizing medical education so that students from rural areas have access to medical school and are able to return to their communities to practice,” explains Jane. “When this position at UAA came open, I was very excited because I knew the WWAMI program very well and had great respect for it.”

In fact, after her site visit during the interview process, Jane was immediately struck by UAA’s potential to be “the flagship WWAMI program site in the whole system.” She credits the state-of-the-art facility that is the new Health Sciences Building, its location directly adjacent to the Providence health care campus and proximity to both Alaska Regional and Alaska Native Medical Center and, of course, the almost 200 physicians statewide who make up Alaska WWAMI’s off-campus faculty.

“This is really the most ideal setting,” Jane said, excited about the current and potential statewide partnerships. “I’m excited about the new College of Health at UAA, too. Not only will we do some very exciting things with the WWAMI program, but to work with everybody in the college to create and move forward with a really good health-professions campus is really exciting and fun.”

Jane brings with her more than 20 years of research and teaching experience with expertise in psychoneuroimmunology, medical sociology, burn trauma, stress and illness and wound healing. She has two patents and she was a pioneer in microsurgery, developing a model for heart transplantation in mice and training young surgeons who performed some of the first finger implants in humans. Along the way she also took some time off academics to lead research and development for a private biotech company.

“My career path has been like a river, flowing, with bends and not completely changing direction but trying new things and exploring,” she says. And it all started as an undergraduate at the University of Utah where she simply became fascinated with medical research. There were no doctors in her family; she grew up in Wyoming and Utah, with a love for the outdoors. It was somewhat inexplicable, but she was drawn to medicine, and to surgery in particular.

“I loved surgery,” she says. “I loved the problems that surgeons faced with their patients and the way that they solved those problems. It was just fascinating to me.”

As early as her freshman year she would troll the university’s surgery research office for a part-time job. “Finally, I just bugged them so much that they gave me a job! In a way it slowed up my academic progress, but it didn’t matter because I was able to get my name on publications and was doing what I loved to do.” (Eventually she became a tenured associate professor in that department.)

Throughout her academic career as a student and later as a professor, Jane really began to understand the juxtaposition of traditional medical training in “big city” settings with an importance of knowing where a patient is coming from and what they are potentially headed back to after their care in an urban environment.

And that is her element. Rural. Small town. Community care.

“The best way to get doctors into rural areas is to get medical students from those rural areas,” Jane says. “Grow your own physicians. My goals at UAA includes maintaining the high quality of students and education that they’re getting here in this program, and to continue to reach out to our rural students to get more in the pipeline.”

And if she’s lucky, she’ll find current undergraduates at UAA who are much like herself at that age. Excited about medicine and ready for the education and experience of a lifetime.

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