Meet Department Chair Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo

Kirsten Bibbins Domingo

By Anne Wolf

As Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, MAS, prepared to begin her tenure as chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics (DEB) on October 1, 2017, she sat down to answer a few questions about her plans for the department.

What drew you to apply for the department chair position?

When I joined the UCSF faculty in 2004, I had a joint appointment in both medicine and epidemiology almost from the beginning, and I spent a lot of time in the department, both as a student, a teacher, and as a leader of some of the training programs. Part of the reason I’ve loved being part of the department is the opportunity just to hang out here because of the many really smart people in the department. I was drawn to DEB, frankly, for the water cooler conversation—I could reliably talk with people who were smart, interested and willing to help me figure out how to ask my research questions in different and interesting ways.

Our faculty in DEB have always been both scholars on the cutting edge of their fields and willing collaborators.  This is a real gift to the University.

When the opportunity came to lead a department here that links to so many other important focus areas of UCSF, I jumped at the chance.

What do you hope to accomplish as chair?

In this department, we are scholars, teachers and mentors, and collaborators and consultants. We do very well in each of these areas, but I’d like us to expand what we do in all three.

Because we are scholars first, I want to support scholarship and create a supportive environment for the faculty. I’d like to build a larger audience for our education products. And because our expertise aligns well with so many initiatives on this campus, I see a big opportunity to increase our impact as critical collaborators in these initiatives. 

You’ve also been appointed Vice Dean for Vulnerable Populations and Health Equity and you head the Center for Vulnerable Populations. How do you see those positions fitting together?

My two new big jobs—vice dean and department chair—are quite compatible and synergistic: both look at how we use data to inform approaches to improving the health of individuals, communities and populations. As vice dean, I need to accelerate our impact across multiple departments and all of the missions of the school. DEB will also be a critical element of this work because of our methods and the work we do as teachers and collaborators with others.

I plan to continue my clinical work at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFGH), but I will give up my role as head of the Center for Vulnerable Populations as soon as a replacement is named.

What led to your interest in vulnerable populations and health equity?

Health equity is just the concept that everyone should have the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible and that to accomplish this goal we have to understand and remove some of the obstacles that have prevented groups of individuals from achieving optimal health. I’ve always done my clinical work at ZSFGH and felt part of that mission to take care of more marginalized patients seen there. My clinical work informs the questions I’ve chosen to address as a scientist. I’m a cardiovascular disease epidemiologist and my work has mostly focused on understanding why poor and minority populations experience cardiovascular disease earlier in life and the impact of clinical and public health interventions in improve cardiovascular health in these populations. 

Finally, tell me a little about your background.

I have an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and public policy from Princeton. Before I came to UCSF to do a PhD in biochemistry, I spent two years studying at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

UCSF was a destination for me because many Princeton science professors had moved here because of the strong innovative scientific community. I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Harold Varmus as my PhD mentor before he left to head the National Institutes of Health. I went to medical school after my PhD, and then decided the best way for me to continue my scientific research interest was as a clinical and populations scientist. I was in the first class of the Master’s in Clinical Research, which gave me an extra set of skills that allowed me to solidify my research in how to improve patient care and population health.

On a personal note, I have an international background. I am an Army brat and lived in many different locations growing up. My mother is German, and I was born in Germany. Most of our relatives still live there. I’m married and my husband is Nigerian and a small-business owner in San Francisco.  We have one son who graduated from Cal last spring. He played basketball there and is now playing professionally in the Netherlands.