Vaughn Starnes, MD, is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery, and the H. Russell Smith Foundation Chair for Cardiovascular Thoracic Research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. He is surgeon-in-chief at USC Norris Cancer and Keck Hospital of USC. Starnes is also founding executive director of USC’s Cardiovascular Thoracic Institute and chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He recently shared his perspective on creating a culture of research with HSC News.


I’m firmly of the belief that you can’t call yourself a top surgeon if you’re only well versed in the current techniques. A true top surgeon actively develops new techniques and devices to stay at the forefront of medicine. USC Surgery has worked hard to establish a culture in which research is enabled and promoted as a continuous, active focus.


We created a division of research.

Our division of clinical research, headed by Linda S. Sher, MD, includes research coordinators, data managers and regulatory and budgeting specialists. This allows our researchers to turn to the division for everything from judging whether the study is feasible to grant applications and budgeting to putting together a research team.

The division works with our surgical faculty to test new devices, drugs, and treatment strategies, ensuring that our patients benefit from the latest advances and our surgeons stay on the leading edge of their specialties.


We break down silos.

Progress leaps forward when surgeons, medical doctors and basic scientists can collaborate, bringing their specialized knowledge together to create new connections. Our clinical researchers work alongside our basic and translational science researchers under the direction of Young-Kwon Hong, PhD, to build a foundation of research that will help medical science for generations.

We have just expanded our capacity to cross-pollinate research with the establishment of the new Norton Herrick Surgical Biorepository of USC. This repository will be used to collect and catalog blood and tissue samples so that they are available to researchers across the USC community.


We hire surgeon-scientists.

We make a point of hiring top surgeon-scientists who never stop searching for something better, constantly working towards new breakthroughs.

Their curiosity and drive mean they hit the ground running every day, ready to fight on against cancer, heart disease, and anything else that comes their way. Most important: I’ve found that their drive to find new cures stems from a deep compassion. Because while their heads may seem to be buried in research, our surgeons have their minds on our patients.

This culture of research has been a major contributor to our outstanding performance in the 2019–2022 U.S. News & World Report national rankings, with our Cardiology & Heart Surgery program coming in at 11th in the country, Gastroenterology & GI Surgery at 13th, and Pulmonary & Lung Surgery at 33rd. We’re proud of these rankings, but we look at them the same way we look at our research breakthroughs: This is only the beginning.

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