My Story: From Brain Surgeon to an Executive MBA at Duke

Brain surgeon John Sampson is getting an Executive MBA from Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

When asked to reflect on his EMBA experience at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, John Sampson says two words come to mind: “Holy Crap!”

“I say this with the utmost respect for the program and what it has taught me,” says Sampson, who is a neurosurgeon at Duke University Medical Center. Having entered the EMBA program in the fall of last year, the physician and endowed professor looks back on how he came face to face with business topics and tactics he’d never encountered before B-school. Which topic was the most mind-blowing for the doctor? The meaning and value of teamwork.

His Story:

Medicine teaches you how the body works, but when it comes to things such as business and healthcare, there are specific ways in which the world works. This is why I decided to pursue an Executive MBA.

In my practice, I mostly focus on patients with brain tumors. I perform surgeries two days out of the week and I spend my time in clinic the remainder of the week. Although I mostly deal with tumor cases, my team does a lot of operations on the spine as well. We see all kinds of patients and so my practice keeps me pretty busy.

Different from most neurosurgeons, I not only operate and treat patients, I run an active laboratory at Duke University. My team and I proactively investigate new therapies for patients with brain tumors. One such therapy is a vaccine that treats already existing tumors. As opposed to a preventative treatment, this is used to treat the condition after it has already developed. An interesting side note is that one of these vaccines is currently being licensed to a small biotech firm and ultimately was sub licensed to Pfizer. We are currently planning Phase III clinical trials of this project which is the final stage of testing before it becomes approved and marketed by the Food and Drug Administration.

In conjunction with this vaccine, another thing that we pioneered is the imaging of where drugs go that we pump into the brain using straw-like tubes. It may seem like a simple idea but the technicalities of this process are very intricate. Monitoring where the fluid goes and what it does once it reaches the tumor is a delicate procedure indeed. To this end, our team helped pioneer imaging techniques and computer modeling to help us improve it over time.

It is this kind of innovation that led me to pursue an EMBA. In the current economic environment, financial pressures limit one’s ability to try new things. I wanted to understand more about healthcare so that I could not only perform as a physician, but also champion what I feel is important in medicine: providing high quality medical care while advancing the field with creativity and new innovations.

Some people ask the question, “you’re a successful doctor, why pursue another degree?” I’m not sure that I have a good answer to this. At the core, I love learning. I have a PhD, an MD, a Masters, and a Bachelor’s. The number of degrees is excessive; I think that’s a fair assessment. But the MBA teaches you how the world works. This is a general perspective which I felt I was lacking. Similarly, I think the EMBA will help me become a better leader. Sometimes in medicine we forget about principled leadership so I wanted to add more of that to the field as well.

Since entering the program, I now understand a lot more about how life works. The first couple of terms I obviously needed because they were very foundational. Although I needed this foundation, it didn’t seem like I was in business school. The course work was really interesting, but it didn’t make sense to me how accounting and economics fit into the totality of business as a whole. With electives and other course work, I’ve started to view business more holistically.

In terms of how I would rate the professors, there’s certainly a range. Most of them have a pretty good knowledge of the material, but I do find that some are less willing to explore more complex concepts. Others are perfectly comfortable and willing to engage the whole class in a complex discussion. I think some professors shy away from this because certain students may be at different levels. The instructors who excel in this area are good at taking a topic and exploring it in a way that is understandable for those who may not be as advanced, yet still engaging to those who are already comfortable with the material.

The most engaging course for me so far has been financial and cost accounting. I haven’t done that much work in a single course since med school. Even though it was really intense, the professors did an outstanding job teaching the class.

Four words I would use to describe this program are Holy crap and eye opening. I don’t know that ‘eye opening’ would distinguish the Duke EMBA from any other program, but I certainly have a brand new outlook in several key areas. Take ‘teamwork’, for example.  One of the selling points Duke really emphasizes is a team based approach to learning and conducting business. In medicine this doesn’t even show up on our radar. As a surgeon, I have a team, but I’m the team leader more than I am a team player. Therefore, I didn’t choose Duke because I wanted to work in teams. I was purely attracted to the health sector management program.

Duke’s team based approach was different for me to say the least. Yet having to work with my classmates allowed me to see, firsthand, how teams arrive at better answers than individuals; no matter how smart an individual may think they are. This was life changing for me because it made me realize, “this whole ‘team’ B.S. actually works, and it has value.” The personal relationships that came out of these exercises were great also, but, from an academic standpoint, this has been most important for me.

One of the advantages of working and going to school is that you immediately get to apply what you’ve learned. Being in my first year, I’m still fairly new to the program, but we’ve learned executive management and leadership techniques that I’ve immediately applied in my lab.

As far as the juggle between work, home, and school, I am surrounded by great teams. In the lab, I have an outstanding team helping to drive the science forward. In the operating room, I have two nurses who ensure our patients get the best care. And at home, I have a supportive wife and an understanding family.

I also have two boys who are 11 and 12 years old. One of the most rewarding things about the EMBA is it has helped me to brush up on my math skills. Now I can help my 12 year old with his math homework.

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