Nina Schor, who is stepping down from her post as the Golisano Children’s Hospital pediatrician-in-chief in June, reflects on the latest milestone in her career.
They called it a “lab,” but it wasn’t a lab, or much of anything, really, when Nina Schor walked in. Just a drab, tweed-carpeted, 300-square-foot room with a few benches in it.
The nearest source of distilled water — an essential for medical research — was in the Department of Pathology, across a bridge. You’ll need to clean your own glassware, she was told. And we don’t have that laminar flow hood you wanted — maybe you can fund it through one of your grants?
So began Schor’s research career at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1986.
“It was like doing research in a log cabin,” said Schor, who spent 20 years in Pittsburgh before her appointment as pediatrician-in-chief at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. “And you know what? I absolutely loved it.”
Two decades later, Pittsburgh’s once-fledgling pediatric laboratory research program — which began with Schor and just three other physician-scientists — had grown into a nationally-recognized powerhouse. And Schor herself had been promoted to Associate Dean of Medical Student Research, as well as Chief of Pittsburgh’s Division of Pediatric Neurology, which had grown from six faculty members to 21 during her tenure.
With both her university and her division thriving, Schor began looking around for her next challenge.
Meanwhile, the University of Rochester Medical Center had recently received a gift from local businessman and philanthropist B. Thomas Golisano, who had given $14 million to support their children’s health programs.
The facility was called “Golisano Children’s Hospital,” but it wasn’t a children’s hospital, really. Just a collection of pediatric services and specialists, largely confined to the fourth floor of its parent, Strong Memorial Hospital, and its community partners. But Golisano’s gift had provided a spark. After decades of hoping, the Department of Pediatrics was beginning to realize that their vision of a standalone children’s hospital was, for the first time, actually in sight. Like the log-cabin lab in Pittsburgh, it just needed someone to help turn the dream into reality.
Becoming a physician
Schor grew up in New York City alongside a father who always liked to describe himself as one of the first male suffragettes.
“He had two daughters and told us the sky was the limit,” said Schor. “He lived to see us go to Yale — which was all-male when he was a graduate student there — and he was always a champion for women’s rights.”
Having graduated high school early, Schor made it to the university at age 16, where she studied biochemistry and music theory. She’d leave Yale early, too, graduating in just three years, and then became the first woman accepted to the M.D.-Ph.D. program at Cornell/Rockefeller, now known as the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. program.
Of course, accomplishments like this always seemed a bigger deal to those around her than to Schor herself.
“It was always funny to me what a big fuss they made about things like that,” she said. “I had gone to public school, and was in co-educational classes all the way through, and nobody ever made much of a distinction. To me, it never seemed like a big deal whether you were a boy or a girl, a man or a woman.”
By 1980, she had her Ph.D. from Rockefeller University, and the following year, she earned her M.D. from Cornell. She then headed to her residency at Boston Children’s Hospital, the teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where she spent two years in pediatrics, and three more in child neurology.
For seven months, she was the only chief resident. This, during a time when there were no restrictions on duty hours.
“I was on every night, every weekend, every holiday,” said Schor. “It was insane, but when I went to Boston, I had my M.D., and by the end of my internship I had actually become a physician.”
Boston asked her to stay, but Schor wanted to pursue her research. That’s when Pittsburgh came calling, offering to support her full-time research for three years in the hopes she could earn her own government grants during that span.
“Two years in, I had myself fully funded,” said Schor. “But had they not given me a chance, I don’t think I could have done what I did.”
More than a building
Mark Taubman, M.D., URMC CEO and Dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry
After 20 years in Pittsburgh, Schor came to Rochester, and in 2006 became URMC’s seventh Chair of the Department of Pediatrics. Another staggering gift from Tom Golisano followed — this time, it was $20 million — and a multi-year campaign was launched to generate the remaining funding. Throughout the campaign, Schor was always out front, educating the community on the importance of a standalone children’s hospital: Children and families would be more comfortable in their own space. Top-tier pediatricians and medical students, drawn by the promise of a brand-new facility, would come to Rochester to work and study. Care would improve. Outcomes would improve.
As time passed, she became the face of an organization that needed the community’s support, all the while leading the Department of Pediatrics through a period of strong growth despite diminishing federal research funding.
Finally, in 2015, Golisano Children’s Hospital had its new building. An 8-floor, $190 million hallmark of children’s health, the hospital overlooks Crittenden Boulevard and sits right next door to its old home base in Strong Memorial Hospital.
It remains a remarkable achievement, and a testament to both the community that made it a priority, and the leader that willed it into existence. But as Schor considers her legacy, the fact that the new hospital building will be inextricably linked with her tenure in Rochester gives her pause.
“There will be a great many people who say ‘Nina Schor built that building over there,’” said Schor. “And I don’t want to downplay the significance of that. But the building is not important in and of itself. It’s what we do inside of it and because of it that’s so important.”
Instead, the accomplishments Schor will carry with her are centered on the people she influenced — either through early career support or by cajoling them into braving the sleet and snow and moving to join her team in Rochester.
The Department of Pediatrics grew from 110 faculty members to more than 170 during her tenure. New divisions were created in palliative care, sleep medicine, allergy, and hospitalist medicine. Research centers that focused on premature infants, translational molecular programs, and red blood cell development also took root and flourished under Schor’s leadership.
And Schor never forgot the early support she received as a young researcher in Pittsburgh, paying it forward to her more junior colleagues whenever possible.
“Nina has been incredibly supportive of the faculty and researchers who are trying to establish themselves,” said Laurie Steiner, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics and Neonatology. “She’s very approachable and has gone out of her way to include me and others in certain opportunities.”
Schor hasn’t yet decided on her next destination. A research institution may be a good fit; despite all her responsibilities here, she’s continued to conduct groundbreaking studies into neuroblastoma, the most common childhood cancer. (In the past six months alone, she won the 2017 Hower Award from the Child Neurology Society, and was named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.)
She also may stay in Rochester, where she can return to her lab full-time, while also acting as mentor to future pediatric leaders, passing the torch in a similar manner to her own mentor and predecessor, Elizabeth McAnarney. But regardless of where she ends up, one thing can be certain: Like Rochester and Pittsburgh before it, Schor will leave her next home a better place than she found it.