Elizabeth Ryan, EdD, sometimes ponders where she would be today if she had walked through different doors—if closed doors hadn’t led her to new doors of opportunity. She might be a schoolteacher or a retail buyer. Instead, her winding path has led to the top leadership position on the Indiana University School of Medicine-Northwest campus in Gary, Indiana, where she assumed the role as associate dean and director in October 2018.
“I’ve learned how to recognize opportunities,” said Ryan, a first-generation college student whose career journey took her from merchandising to academia. “I walked through those doors and gave it my best. Sometimes I was successful, and sometimes I learned and tried over again.
“That’s continuous quality improvement—it doesn’t have to be called ‘failure,’” she asserts. “My pathway was definitely nonconventional.”
Today Ryan is the only regional campus director at IU School of Medicine with a doctorate in educational leadership rather than an MD or PhD. She also holds a master’s in education from Loyola University Chicago and a bachelor’s in fashion merchandising from Ray College of Design in Chicago.
“Her background is somewhat unique, and the Northwest campus is doing some innovative things in primary care education,” said Paul Wallach, MD, executive associate dean for educational affairs and institutional improvement at IU School of Medicine. “Elizabeth brings a different skillset to our schoolwide leadership team. She has a real eye toward curricular design, and she is very creative.”
Patterned after the rural medicine track at IU School of Medicine-Terre Haute, Ryan has developed an urban medicine program in Gary that aims to equip the next generation of physicians to identify and address health care disparities affecting people from medically underserved communities.
She’s found many eager collaborators in the community. As one example, several faith-based organizations—including a Jewish synagogue, a Catholic church, Protestant churches and nondenominational groups—are currently working with IU School of Medicine-Northwest and regional health care providers on an initiative to provide mobile mental health care.
“I love the fact that there’s a way for everyone to get involved, and you don’t have to be part of a certain group to help or contribute,” Ryan said. “There’s this sense of connection to each other because you’re all working for the common good. For me, it fits my values of how I was raised.”
Continually striving to be better
In many ways, the culture in Gary reminds Ryan of her childhood neighborhood in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, where she had friends of various races and backgrounds. Diversity and equal opportunity were ingrained into the fabric of the community, she said.
The eldest daughter of a self-made sales representative and a stay-at-home mom who helped in the family merchandising business, Ryan never would have imagined one day leading a medical education campus. As a child, she wanted to become a teacher. But as she grew older and began working in the family business, she found she had an aptitude for it—perhaps taking after her mother, who handled billing and recordkeeping.
“She could’ve run a Fortune 500 company—she was really smart, had exceptional insight—but she just wasn’t given that opportunity,” said Ryan. “Due to the times, my grandfather sent my mother to secretarial school; she was expected to get a job until she married, so she did that.”
By contrast, Ryan and her two sisters were taught, “you can be anything you want to be.” She worked hard to pay for college, but she never envisioned an education beyond a bachelor’s degree.
After her time at Ray College of Design, she returned to the family business. Her sister Josie was working as a pharmacy tech, which got Ryan thinking about health care. With her merchandising background, she dreamed of becoming a buyer for a major drug store chain.
Ryan first worked as a pharmacy tech, followed by a job in managed care, but she disliked having to tell people their insurance wouldn’t cover many medical procedures. She eventually landed a position at Loyola University as coordinator for the family medicine clerkship at Stritch School of Medicine—and loved it. That’s when she realized her future would be in academia.
Ryan’s position at Loyola offered a tuition benefit, enabling her to pursue a master’s degree. Her knack for initiating important conversations at the monthly clerkship directors meeting quickly caught the attention of John X. Thomas, PhD, then dean of educational affairs.
“She started bringing up topics others were too timid to bring up,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Here’s this new kid on the block who is a fireball and has already gained the respect of the people around her in just a few months.’ That stuck with me.”
A few years later, Thomas moved to Northwestern University to become associate dean for medical education at Feinberg School of Medicine. When a colleague was looking to fill a manager of surgical education position at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, he recommended Ryan.
“I said, ‘Hire her! She’s a go-getter, she’s interested in furthering her education, she follows through, and she has better closed-loop communication than a lot of physicians you deal with,’” Thomas recounted.
Ryan got the job. After earning her doctoral degree, she joined the faculty and advanced to a leadership position as vice chair for education in the family medicine department. Throughout her time at Northwestern, Ryan sought mentorship and advice from Thomas.
“She was one of few people who would ask for feedback on a regular basis and wanted an honest answer,” he recalled. “I was dean from 1993 to 2018, and I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met like that. The single most impressive thing about her was her desire to be better.”
Setting the standard in medical education
Ryan brings that passion for continuous improvement to IU School of Medicine-Northwest.
“She’s always trying to make us better, pushing us forward,” said Jonathan Guerrero, PharmD, who joined the IU School of Medicine-Northwest faculty in 2019. “She’s always challenging us to do something out of our norm, which is good for us because it makes us better faculty members, better researchers, better teachers—just better all around.”
Transitioning from being a clinical pharmacist to the world of academia, Guerrero said Ryan has been a mentor, pointing him to educational opportunities and, perhaps more importantly, encouraging him to “be yourself.”
Baraka Muvuka, PhD, MPH, joined the IU School of Medicine-Northwest faculty as director of research in July 2021, and said her favorite nugget of wisdom from Ryan is, “Never overpromise and underdeliver.”
“This is especially important when engaging various stakeholders in developing research and educational partnerships on our campus and in our region,” said Muvuka, who is helping Ryan grow the urban medicine program. “She values trust and sustainability and understands that failure to deliver on promises can compromise existing and future partnerships by creating mistrust.”
Ryan says she lives by a simple motto: “Work hard, be nice and earn your credibility.” That’s brought her respect among colleagues at IU and beyond.
She is active in the Central Group on Educational Affairs (CGEA) of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), having served four years on the executive board from 2014-2018. In 2019, she was recognized as a “standard setter” in medical education as recipient of the CGEA Laureate Award. According to Janet Lindemann, MD, MBA, a former CGEA leader and professor emeritus at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, Ryan re-energized the organization and “raised the bar on academic excellence and organizational communication.”
“Elizabeth’s professional achievements speak to her effectiveness, innovation and integrity,” Lindemann said. “What also makes her a great leader is her willingness to pitch in, openness to ideas, and respect for others.”
Thomas, Ryan’s longtime friend and mentor, characterizes her as someone who always “sees possibilities.”
“She looks for and finds opportunities—for people, for programs, for students, for faculty,” he observed. “Elizabeth works her ‘southern hemisphere’ off and doesn’t want anything in return. She’s just built that way.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Women are leading the way in helping Indiana University School of Medicine fulfill its mission to advance health in the state of Indiana and beyond by promoting innovation and excellence in education, research and patient care. The Women in Leadership series celebrates the contributions of women who have emerged as strong leaders within the medical school and in their respective fields of expertise.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is a senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications. A native Hoosier, she has 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.