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Leader Profile: Fiemu Nwariaku Inspires Faculty and Elevates Department of Surgery

My CV tells a story of three decades of significant academic and clinic experience in surgery. What it does not or cannot provide is the context that led me here. That background served as the catalyst to my journey to become the surgeon, scientist, and leader I am today.

Early, Lasting Influences

I was born and raised in Nigeria as the only child of an engineer father and a nurse executive mother. My father came to the United States after World War II. He was in the first cohort of African children who were educated overseas as part of the European Economic Recovery program—also known as the Marshall Plan—under President Harry Truman. 

Growing up, I was heavily influenced by my maternal grandfather. He spent most of his life in public service as a sanitary inspector and ultimately as a Federal Minister. I watched my grandfather leverage relationships through collaboration, transparency, respect, and service to exert powerful and positive influence in the lives of those around him. He inspired me to do the same. From my parents, I learned that discipline and a strong work ethic are key to a successful professional career.

Finding My Passion for Surgery

At the age of nine, I left home to attend an all-boys boarding school. My dream was to become a pilot in the Nigerian Air Force. My mother and grandmother redirected my focus to medicine. I graduated from medical school when I was 22 years old. My first position was working for a small rural Baptist mission hospital in Southern Nigeria. That is where I fell in love with surgery. 

I was eager to learn and quickly became the go-to surgical house officer. Holding this first leadership position at such a young age, I learned the value of building relationships and how one’s impact in the community can change lives. This passion led me to pursue a career in surgery in the United States, where I have spent the last three decades learning, growing, and leading.

Fiemu Nwariaku presents at 2023 Leadership Retreat
Fiemu Nwariaku, MD, FACS, MBA, shares his future vision for the Department of Surgery with division chairs and executives at University of Utah Health, March 2023.

Leadership Values

I’m extremely grateful for the positive experiences I had at a young age. They helped shape my personal and professional values. From observing the care and compassion demonstrated by my grandfather, to leading teams in a rural hospital at an early age, I have come to appreciate the immense value of people throughout my career.

A critical element to growing a successful team and organization is understanding your people’s values and passions—and then creating opportunities to align those values with projects and needs within the organization. This strategy makes the work more meaningful and gets people excited about their role. This is how I develop teams that thrive. I strive to put the needs of my people above my own. In the words of a mentor, “… I try to bask in the reflection of other’s successes…”  

Although I’m a relatively new department chair at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine, I draw upon decades of experience to establish myself as a leader who cares about the development of all our people, finds opportunities to help them discover inspiration in their work, and learns and grows together.

Igniting the Spark in Others

I use different methods for increasing drive and motivation in my teams. I help identify and support their individual interests. I remove barriers. I provide avenues to align their passions with their work. It’s a remarkable experience to watch someone find the spark that lights their fire. Then I get out of their way and watch the magic happen.

In addition to helping people find their passion at work, I’m drawn to mentoring and coaching— particularly young learners, staff, and faculty. The academic medical system is wonderful and sometimes painfully complicated at the same time. I believe that my role as a leader is to help people view problems as opportunities and challenge them to see the situation from a different perspective so they can be the influence for positive change. When I’m not the right mentor, I am thrilled to step back and make connections to help them grow and flourish with experts in my network.

Creating a Well-Rounded Faculty

Before I was appointed as chair of the Department of Surgery, I spent 26 years at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. I held several leadership roles there, including the founding Vice Chair for Research and the founding Associate Dean for Global Health.

While at UT Southwestern, I experienced how collaboration deepens professional relationships and opens avenues for growth and development in technical and soft skills. Upon taking this new position at U of U Health, I embarked on a six-month listening and learning tour to understand the past and present state of the department. Then our team developed a six-point strategic vision. One of those points is creating clear pathways that support equitable professional advancement opportunities for everyone. 

To launch this effort, we are collaborating with the business school to create a structured plan for the future. Our plan includes Individual Development Plans (IDPs), consolidated resources for all to access, regular seminars on essential leadership topics, and structured mentorship.  

I’m hopeful that this opportunity will allow our faculty to enhance their professional skillset and advance their careers over the next five years. 

I’m also focused on establishing a culture of inclusion within the Department of Surgery that reflects one of my core values: Everyone deserves dignity, respect, and support. This is another of the six points: To build a healthy, diverse, inclusive community. I’ve organized a search committee for a new Vice Chair for Equity and Diversity to ensure that everyone within the department feels their needs are being met and their voices are being heard.

Fiemu Nwariaku leads discussion at 2023 Department of Surgery Leadership Retreat
Fiemu Nwariaku, MD, FACS, MBA (left), leads a discussion about health system alignment with University of Utah Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Michael Good, MD (middle), and U of U Health Hospitals and Clinics CEO Dan Lundergan, MHA (right), at the Department of Surgery leadership retreat, March 2023.

Elevating the Department of Surgery

My vision for the future is to be the best Department of Surgery in the nation. While we strive to meet that goal, we have the immediate opportunity and responsibility to deliver the highest quality surgical care, provide value, and drive surgical innovation through research and education.  

To meet our future goals, our influence must be measurable. Five years from now, we should be able to point to clear metrics showing that our teams are better prepared and the population in our community is healthier because we are here.  

U of U Health is in a unique position supporting a vast catchment area, including the five contiguous states. We have the incredible opportunity to make a difference across a large geographical area. Being in a leadership position to help my team make a difference over such a span is an exciting prospect. I would not have the same influence in most urban regions with denser populations and stiff health care competition.

Working Toward a Healthier Future

I’m humbled to step into this position where the academic, clinical, and research structure is already strong and provides a nice platform to grow. Since my arrival, we’ve identified areas of opportunity in clinical advancements, and we’re getting to work. We’re currently strengthening our transplant surgery program to provide better care for a larger geographic region. We’re also starting a new division of surgical oncology to streamline care for cancer patients in partnership with the Huntsman Cancer Institute.  

Historically, our department has had a strong footprint in health services research. Moving forward, I would like to develop more translational programs and develop a robust platform for industry partnerships through innovation. I hope to leverage the explosive growth of AI and data science in health care. This is apparent in the use of “omics” technology, medical device development, and electronic health care applications. I believe that these technologies represent the future of health care and will likely lead to better patient outcomes, improve quality of life, and prevent death.  

Another advantage of being in Salt Lake City is the geographical proximity of Silicon Slopes. Our goal is to connect with local industry partners and potential co-investors to support innovative, impactful research that helps products or devices get to market more quickly. We also hope to attract and recruit people who are likely to make discoveries or inventions that could be game changers.  

This is an exciting time for the University of Utah. We are growing, along with the population in our region. We are poised to build a stronger future locally and regionally, while elevating our presence on a national and international level.  

While the Department of Surgery has developed a clear strategic vision and numerous initiatives to meet these goals, I’m also learning to be more patient with the pace of progress and change. Sometimes, as a leader, I find that I’m in a hurry to get things done because they seem so important. I must remind myself that for certain achievements, it’s crucial to collaborate and build deep relationships, and that these changes can take some time. Creating what we have in mind for the department may take a while, but the community and the university will reap the benefits for years to come.

Fiemu Nwariaku

Fiemu Nwariaku, MD, FACS, MBA

Fiemu Nwariaku is a professor and chair of the Department of Surgery at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah. Nwariaku holds the Helen Lowe Bamberger Colby Presidential Endowed Chair in Health Sciences. He specializes in endocrine surgery and cares for patients with diseases of the thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pancreas. He is also at the forefront of breakthroughs in robotic and minimally invasive surgery to care for patients with complex endocrine diseases. Nwariaku received an MD at University of Ibadan College of Medicine in West Africa and completed a residency and fellowship at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

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