Link: University of Iowa

Information About

Alumni Interview


Sara Brenner, M.D., M.P.H.


What is your hometown?

Adel, IA

What is your official title?

Assistant Vice President for NanoHealth Initiatives;
Assistant Professor of Nanobioscience
College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering
University at Albany – State University of New York

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I was fascinated with science from a very early age, particularly astronomy, archeology, and biology. My parents were science teachers, and they facilitated my curiosity and interest in all sorts of hands-on life science experiments. We used to do environmental science projects in the prairies of Iowa, dissect frogs in my dad’s classroom, and take family field trips to science museums — sounds dorky, but it was really a lot of fun! I also had some great science teachers in middle school and high school who challenged me to think creatively and participate in national conferences and student contests. I didn’t know any physicians; somehow I came up with the idea of pursuing medicine on my own near the end of my undergraduate education.

What interested you to pursue a career in medicine and medical education?

In undergrad, I studied genetics and philosophy and considered a career in either basic science research or theology. Not wanting to fully abandon one for the other, I thought that medicine would be a good way to marry my love of science and my passion for the humanities. So I applied to medial schools relatively late in the game just before moving to Sydney, Australia to finish my last semester studying biotechnology. I learned of my acceptance to the University of Iowa while overseas and returned just a few days before my first week of class.

Please highlight your major career achievements, awards, discoveries, etc.

I have navigated many interesting roads in medicine thus far, and even more importantly, foresee a truly exhilarating ride ahead. After training in internal medicine, preventive medicine, and public health, I took my initial career–launching position beyond residency as the first physician on faculty at the University at Albany College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering. My research focus areas include nanomedicine, occupational and environmental health & safety, and bioethics. I am also designing and developing cutting–edge "NanoHealth" initiatives and programs in collaboration with colleagues in academia, industry, and government.

A few awards to date which I cherish are the Hancher–Finkbine Medallion from the University of Iowa in April of 2006. This medallion is one of the most prestigious awards presented to University of Iowa students. Four medallions are awarded each year, two for undergraduate students and two for graduate or professional students who "demonstrate exemplary leadership, learning, and loyalty." I received the A. Zamin Rizavi, M.D. Award from the Evanston Northwestern Hospital Internal Medicine department in 2007, which is awarded to the resident who "best exemplifies honest, humility, hard work, compassion, concern for others, and devotion to medicine" and who "understands the juncture of the heart and mind in medicine", and the ACPM Don Gemson Resident Award from the American College of Preventive Medicine in 2009. This is nationally awarded to one resident per year for outstanding achievement in community service, scholarship, research, teaching and overall leadership with strong potential for future contributions to the field of preventive medicine.

Aside from these more traditional honors, I would have to say that if there is a capstone achievement of my career thus far, it is that I’ve been able to craft a very unique and intense medical career while maintaining both balance and focus in the grand scheme of life.

Is there a teacher, mentor or UI Carver College of Medicine faculty member who has helped shape your education?

In shaping my medical journey, my most influential mentor was Neal Kohatsu, M.D., M.P.H, a physician and professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University when I was a medical student. He introduced me to the specialty that would later become my own – preventive medicine. Over the course of many years, he has helped guide and shape my career and was always willing to listen or lend words of wisdom as I came to frequent forks in the road. Not only did he serve as the national president of our specialty organization, the American College of Preventive Medicine, we also jammed in piano–flute jazz gigs together at our national conferences.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa for your education and medical training?

I’m a native Iowan and after investigating the school, its programmatic details, and talking with faculty and students, the University of Iowa was clearly the place to be.

What kind of professional opportunities or advantages has your University of Iowa medical training provided?

In addition to a high quality education, one of the most significant and beneficial aspects of my experience at Iowa was the freedom to be involved in several diverse leadership opportunities. During medical school, I served as a national delegate to the Association of American Medical Colleges for two years, founded and developed a national medical student section of the American College of Preventive Medicine, participated in federal health policy in Washington, D.C., attended conferences of the American Medical Association, designed and completed an international research fellowship in Adelaide, Australia, studied clinical oncology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and participated in a medical mission to Cotija, Mexico. These experiences and many others were pivotal to my development as a physician, scientist, entrepreneur, global citizen, and future academic leader.

Please describe your professional interests.

My interests fall in a few different, but complimentary domains – Nanomedicine, preventive medicine and public health, and bioethics. My research in nanomedicine aims to develop novel nanotechnology applications in the life sciences, particularly medicine and public health. Regarding preventive medicine and public health, I am leading health and safety research initiatives related to nanoparticle and nanomaterial exposures in the workplace, consumer marketplace, and environment. In this way, I am addressing gaps in our understanding of the safety and risk associated with the unique characteristics of nanoscale materials by incorporating theory from many disciplines such as physics, engineering, biology, genetics, medicine, public health, epidemiology, and environmental science. As part of these efforts, I am advancing risk assessment and reduction strategies for occupational exposures, monitoring of materials that may impact population health and public safety, and the development of industrial practice standards for product safety. My research team at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is working proactively with collaborators and partners to develop monitoring and surveillance techniques to assess the environmental and ecological impact, as well as the biopersistence of engineered nanomaterials in New York’s Capital Region. We are building a framework to employ custom–tailored strategies to mitigate potential risks associated with nanotechnology-based products that are currently on the market as well as those under development. As a professor, I also participate in teaching and service to the University. This spring I am developing and instructing a course entitled ‘Societal Implications of Nanotechnology’ which will combine science with philosophy, ethics, and public policy. My interest and passion for bioethics continues to grow as new, evolving technologies challenge our understanding of the natural world, biology, and humanity.

What are some of your outside interests?

I spend time with family and friends whenever possible — I love socializing over good food and wine or through activities. The main passion I have outside of work is fitness. Running is my primary addiction, although I also teach swing and ballroom dance. I started running marathons during medical school which progressed to running ultra–marathons (up to 50 miles) and ultra–relays (up to 200 miles). Since moving to upstate New York I have also picked up trail running, adventure racing, and snowshoe racing. I also continue doing occasional music gigs like weddings and jazz ensembles for events. My right brain is always looking for a way to break loose through creative writing, art, and photography.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

Follow your passion.

If you could change one thing about the health care system in the United States, what would it be?

Increase the emphasis, investment, and incentives for prevention and wellness. Medicine, as practiced in the U.S., focuses almost exclusively on diagnosis and treatment of disease. Over 90% of the illnesses and diseases we treat are preventable — our medical education, resident training, and physician payment systems must shift in focus from fixing derailed trains to keeping trains on the tracks in the first place. In order to achieve the maximum potential reduction in health care costs, morbidity, and mortality, every aspect of the health care system must realign, from individual patient care to federal health policy.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in medicine since you were a student?

Health care is becoming increasingly commercialized. Society both encourages unhealthy behaviors (i.e. overeating and being sedentary) and quick–fix solutions (i.e. diets and fitness fads). As the system becomes more fragmented and physicians become super–specialized, patients piece together many complex aspects of their care while being inundated with advertisements fueled by big pharmaceutical and medical device makers. I think the concept and understanding of health - and how to achieve good health — has become more complex and confusing over the years.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's medical students?

Think non–traditionally. Keep your eyes open for opportunities off the beaten path as well as those that directly present themselves, and then take advantage of every singe one, even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the time. Don’t lose sight of your passion and purpose while you are shaping and guiding the evolution of what "medicine" means to you, as well as informing the future form and function of our health care system.

What do you see as "the future" of the medicine?

Technological advancements, including an ever-increasing number that are enabled by nanotechnology, stand to revolutionize health care as they have computers and other electronics. The emerging science, engineering, and application of nanotechnologies to biological systems are undergoing rapid expansion in the U.S. and abroad. The last few years have yielded unprecedented advances in biotechnology, including chip–based detection methods and human genome sequencing. Nanotechnology applications in medicine and public health will lead to revolutionary advances in targeted drug delivery, imaging, diagnostics, implant technology, regenerative medicine, anti-cancer therapies, infectious disease control, and personalized medicine. Not only does the future hold promise of advances in medical interventions and treatments, but also for the early detection and prevention of disease and illness. Examples of current medical applications include novel chip–based technologies for diagnostics and high–throughput screening, nanopharmaceuticals, BioMEMS, protein nanoarrays, nanogenomics, nanofluidics, engineered nanostructures for cell and tissue scaffolds, nano-enabled devices for optics, and quantum dots for imaging.

With these extraordinary opportunities will come momentous challenges in navigating and defining the ethical, societal, and public policy aspects of how, when, where, and why to deploy new life-changing technologies. I look forward with great anticipation to playing a role in the new world of 21st century health care.


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