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That Vital Human Connection

As USC Dornsife’s newly appointed associate dean for science and health, USC alumna Erin Quinn has a far-reaching vision to transform the university’s pre-health programs into a nationwide model.

As USC Dornsife's newly appointed associate dean for science and pre health, Erin Quinn is committed to creating compassionate health professionals with an understanding of human behavior and decision-making. Photo by Steve Cohn.
As USC Dornsife's newly appointed associate dean for science and pre health, Erin Quinn is committed to creating compassionate health professionals with an understanding of human behavior and decision-making. Photo by Steve Cohn.

When an elderly Spanish-speaking woman suffering from depression recently became dehydrated, she went to the local emergency room in her hometown of Ventura, Calif. From there, she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Van Nuys, a Los Angeles suburb more than 50 miles away.

The next day her husband, who is in his seventies and doesn’t drive, walked to the office of the couple’s family doctor. When he explained to Victoria Aguilar what had happened, the doctor made the necessary calls herself and got his wife transferred to a hospital near their home.

 “Sending someone who is depressed to a pysch hospital far away where no one in her family can visit is clearly not the best solution,” said Erin Quinn, USC Dornsife’s newly appointed associate dean for science and health.

Quinn pointed out that the husband walked to the clinic and told Aguilar what had happened because he trusted her.

“Communication and trust are essential, whoever your doctor is,” Quinn said. “From the hospital administrator to the person at the front desk, no one working in health care should ever forget that vital human connection.

“In preparing young people to go into careers in health, there has to be a real understanding of humanness, of who we are as people, because just understanding the physiological aspects of the body is not enough.”

Quinn said many diseases are caused by poor lifestyle and behavior choices.

“When it comes to trying to solve our obesity epidemic or our diabetes epidemic, we need to understand not just science, but also human behavior, decision-making and socio-economic implications.

“My goal is to educate young people who have an understanding of all these issues.”

The position of associate dean of science and health was created by Dean Steve Kay to further bolster pre-health education and opportunities at USC Dornsife.

“Health is key in everyone’s life,” Kay said. “As obesity and other ailments take their toll on adults and children alike, we at USC Dornsife are placing health education as a priority. This new position will help ensure our students develop not only the requisite scientific competencies, but also an awareness of the multiple career paths available in healthcare. 

“Erin is the perfect person to lead this effort because she understands the complexities of what makes someone a skilled and caring physician or health administrator.”

Quinn is excited about her new appointment and the opportunities it will provide to help make her vision of health education for the 21st century a reality.

“I am passionate about the power of education to transform people’s lives, so this is a dream job for me,” she said. “I love USC and I think I can make a great contribution.”


Erin Quinn(far left) with a group of USC Dornsife undergraduates outside William Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The students were enrolled in the Problems Without Passports course, "The Biology of Tropical Medicine." Photo courtesy of Erin Quinn.

Quinn believes in allowing students to explore disciplines in their freshman year. She wants to increase interdisciplinary cooperation across the university to develop new and complimentary courses.

“We want undergraduates to take different classes and explore new ideas and concepts that may even inspire them to change their choice of major,” she said.

“I want to ask faculty to come up with their best ideas and suggestions for how they want to see this unfold. I know the creativity and great ideas are within our faculty. I see my role as being the conductor who pulls everything together.”

Quinn holds a master’s of public administration in health services administration and a Ph.D. in health services and gerontology from USC.  She earned her bachelor’s in political science and biology from Bennington College in Vermont. She has played a key role in medical education at the university for more than 30 years, serving as dean of admissions at the Keck School of Medicine of USC from 1998 to 2011, and as associate dean for women from 1993 to 1998. Now Associate Dean of Admissions Emeritus, she has been assistant professor of clinical family medicine since 1991.

Her love of undergraduate teaching led her to become the course director and core professor of USC’s baccalaureate/M.D. program for 16 years. During her tenure, she designed a curriculum for the baccalaureate M.D. program requiring students to complete rotations in clinical medicine and research.

She is committed to the idea that pre-health students should be exposed to teaching within the public education system. Thus, a third component of the baccalaureate M.D. curriculum was a required teaching rotation within high, middle or elementary school or public health teaching in a clinic.

Quinn also served on the MR5, the 22-member national committee appointed by the Association of American Colleges to redesign the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).  The exam had not been redesigned for about 30 years.

“One of the biggest changes we made was to put less emphasis on memorization skills within science while adding reasoning skills to test whether applicants can read a research paper, understand the scientific concepts and apply their interpretation of the statistics. Students still have to know the science, of course, but now they must be able to interpret and reason to answer the questions, not just have the ability to memorize physics and chemistry.”

Quinn then turned her attention to graduate study in medicine.

Three years ago, she began the process of developing a new residency program in Ventura in family medicine, internal medicine, orthopedic surgery and general surgery.  She was responsible for the development, accreditation and implementation of the new programs.  “It’s been very revealing to me in terms of understanding how the system works and what the issues and problems are,” she said.

“We have not handled how we provide health care very well here in the United States. Our cost of health care is ten times that of other countries and we don’t have better outcomes for it. We need to start thinking in a different way to become a country where we aim to prevent chronic illness and when it occurs, succeed in managing it at a low cost.

“We need people who are creative thinkers, who can think through problems and solutions from an interdisciplinary understanding and knowledge base. That is what we are setting out to do and I firmly believe that USC is a perfect place for us to do this.”

Quinn said programs like the Joint Educational Project (JEP) housed in USC Dornsife also give students exposure to real world issues by allowing them to work in the community.

“USC is a great learning environment,” she said. “We have all the components in place for every student who is interested in a career in the sciences or health to come in and basically design their own curriculum. So if they love history, or anthropology or international relations, they can study those subjects and also take their science requirements. Whatever they are passionate or curious about, we want them to be able to create their own curriculum to give them the best toehold into their future and allow them to have a real understanding of human behavior, sociology, economics and science. That is our vision.

“At USC Dornsife we have the ability to create a national model for science and health career education.”