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Draper Journal

Utah-educated doctor chosen to lead National Institutes of Health

Feb 29, 2024 12:19PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

Dr. Monica Bertagnolli is a 1985 graduate of the University of Utah medical school. She served on an advisory board for the Huntsman Cancer Institute and was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate to lead the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which is made up of 27 institutes and centers for biomedical research. Photo credit: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang/NIH

For the first time, a University of Utah medical school graduate sits at the helm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Monica Bertagnolli, M.D., was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November 2023. She is the second woman to serve as NIH Director since its inception in 1887 and the first surgeon in that role.

The NIH is located in Bethesda, Maryland and is comprised of 27 institutes and centers. The organization has a budget of more than $47 billion and serves as the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world. 

President Biden stated: “Dr. Bertagnolli has spent her career pioneering scientific discovery and pushing the boundaries of what is possible to improve cancer prevention and treatment for patients and ensuring that patients in every community have access to quality care. Dr. Bertagnolli is a world-class physician-scientist whose vision and leadership will ensure NIH continues to be an engine of innovation to improve the health of the American people.”

Bertagnolli first earned an engineering degree from Princeton University, then she attended and graduated from the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine in 1985. She was interested in immunology but discovered a different passion. “I signed up for surgery as my very first clinical rotation, just because I wanted to get it out of the way. I still vividly remember my first day in an operating room because I immediately knew that’s where I belonged,” she told the ASCO Post. 

In more recent years, she served as chair of the Huntsman Cancer Institute’s External Advisory Board. Bertagnolli was previously a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She has been president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and leader of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology. 

Prior to her current role at the NIH, Dr. Bertagnolli was the first female director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a role she took in October 2022. NCI is a component of NIH. One month into her time at the NCI, a routine mammogram led to Bertagnolli being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Since then, she has called herself a cancer survivor. “Fortunately, my prognosis is excellent. And this is due to NIH-funded research over the last several decades. And the many women who participated in clinical trials before me,” she said.

Her upbringing on a ranch in rural Wyoming as the daughter of first-generation immigrants has shaped her professional approach by providing an understanding of the medical challenges rural communities experience. An NIH press release said, “Equity is a core value that drives all her efforts, which includes ensuring NIH research is equitable and accessible to all people from all walks of life regardless of income or zip code.”  

Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle, who has known Bertagnolli almost since her Utah med school days, compares her to the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who also grew up on a ranch: A “bundle of wit, resilience, and can-do spirit,” Beckerle said in Science magazine, December 2023 edition.

Beyond being a cancer surgeon for more than 35 years, her research has focused on the genetic mutations that lead to gastrointestinal cancer and how inflammation stimulates cancer growth. In her current role, she hopes to leverage commonalities such as how inflammation causes cancer but is also a component of Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, Long COVID and other diseases. 

In 2023, she was named one of the 100 Influential Women in Oncology by Onco Daily.

Bertagnolli said in a December 2022 NCI statement, “Having been an oncologist my entire career, it was always—and still is—all about the patients and survivors. It’s one thing to know about cancer as a physician, but it is another to experience it firsthand as a patient as well. To anyone with cancer today: I am truly in this together with you.” λ