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New CEO of University of Utah Health Care aims to make a real difference in the challenges patients, doctors face

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

Lee grew up loving math and science, but only after she was working at New York University did she develop an interest in management.

As a relatively new professor, Lee was asked to help other new professors secure competitive research grants. She did a good job and was asked to lead more committees, deal with finances and organize group efforts.

Feeling underqualified, she enrolled in NYU's executive MBA program and spent the next two years of Fridays and Saturdays learning about the science of management — while finishing her book and having her fourth child.

"I don't know how I did that," she says with a small laugh. "I must not have been sleeping."

Armed with an MBA as well as an M.D. and Ph.D., Lee was appointed as the inaugural vice dean for science at New York University Langone Medical Center — the post she left to come to Utah.

"She had to build a whole infrastructure in administration and professional staff and she did an outstanding job," said Judith Hochman, director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center at NYU's School of Medicine and one of the members of Lee's leadership team.

"She is brilliant, with very good common sense. She is able to understand the problems and find solutions, and she works well with people in the process."

Settling in Utah

Looking out her fifth-floor office window in the Clinical Neurosciences Center, the Wasatch Range almost seems touchable — something Lee never saw in downtown Manhattan.

Utah, with its wide-open spaces and friendly atmosphere, has been a pleasant change for Lee and her husband, international law professor Benedict Kingsbury, and their four girls, 4 to 10 years old.

"People would stop us in New York and say, 'Are those all yours?' " Lee says. "People make a big deal (in New York) about four kids. But here I could just be beginning."

She laughs quietly and adds, "People do value the family a lot more here, and I just love that."

Lee grew up with one younger sister, but Kingsbury comes from a family of five children plus additional foster kids and always wanted a large family of his own.

The couple met at Oxford where both were Rhodes Scholars, but in very different fields.

"Vivian worked extremely hard in the lab," Kingsbury said, "but she was also full of life and always doing a million things for fun and community service."

During her radiology training at Duke, Kingsbury said Lee made time to cook meals for people at an AIDS hospice there.

"Vivian tries to instill in our children the same values she has always had," Kingsbury said. "Working hard, having fun, living moderately, thinking about other people."

And having fun is best when done as a family, Kingsbury added. This winter the family learned to ski, ice skate and two of the girls joined an ice hockey team. Come spring, the family is eager to climb and bike the craggy cliffs behind their home.

Lee smiles when she's asked how she balances a demanding work life with family.

"Balance is always a funny word," she says. "It suggests things are under perfect control. I'm not sure I'd use that to describe my life."

Rather than control, Lee says it's about prioritization and eliminating nonessentials.

"I don't get my nails done," she says, showing neatly trimmed, colorless nails. "I don't get my hair cut very often. I keep it simple. If I have any time, I want to spend my time with my family."

Each night she leaves her office a few minutes before 6 p.m. and walks home for dinner and homework. She encourages her daughters to do their best and dream big. But there's no pressure to follow her into medicine or academia.

In fact, right now her daughters frequently change their minds about future plans.

"They're still vacillating between princess fairy and veterinarian," Lee says with a smile.

"They're keeping their options open."

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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