Blueprint for a World-Class Health Center

Skip Garcia has outlined a plan calling for biomedical research focused in four areas: health disparities, population health and health outcomes, precision health, and neuroscience.

Ford Burkhart, Jacob Chinn photo

On the first day of his summer job in the strawberry fields, Skip Garcia looked around. He was just 11. The work crew was mostly big kids; about 100 high school boys had showed up, along with 30 migrants. Bent over, they all filled large crates with berries in the California sun.

“A week later there was just me,” he recalls with a grin, “and the migrants.” If you bruise the berries, you aren’t invited back. Garcia spent four summers picking produce. He brought to those summer jobs a tenacity and work ethic that would one day fuel a high-powered medical career. 

Those summers in the fields also taught many lessons. He observed the migrants, emulating their careful picking, and when he noticed some of them becoming ill with lung disease, Garcia wondered why. He vowed to become a doctor, and he’s never forgotten the migrants who inspired his dream. 

Almost 50 years later, Joe Gregorio Nacianceno Garcia III, still going by Skip, is a UA physician, researcher, and professor as well as the top administrator at the vast Arizona Health Sciences Center. His work on lung disease at the molecular level has made him one of the nation’s leaders in the field. His efforts to create more doctors and researchers from America’s underrepresented minorities have won high honors. 

Friends say Garcia tackles bioscience and helping patients with the energy and tenacity of the football player he was in school. That’s his style at the AHSC, a $361.6 million per year UA division with 4,000 students, 4,300 employees, and nearly $88 million in research grants and contracts. He assumed its leadership in 2013, the most prominent physician-scientist ever to hold the position. 

Today, Garcia says he has one primary goal for the AHSC: “We will be one of the nation’s premier academic health centers.”

To lead a research-based network of five colleges and dozens of related centers and clinical divisions, it helps if you have the best credentials yourself. His research portfolio has received National Institutes of Health funding for more than a decade and will bring $9 million per year to the UA. Working on acute lung injury, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and the genetic basis of inflammatory lung disease, he has produced 400 peer-reviewed articles. His work earned him an election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 

He has used his research expertise and academic acumen to recruit a new Cancer Center director, a new chair of surgery, and a number of highly accomplished scientists to join his leadership team. In addition, he brings diverse and talented investigators together and mentors junior faculty.  

Garcia’s mission for the UA reflects a wide vision of contemporary medicine. “We are a solid health science center. We are academically strong, fully loaded in pharmacy and nursing,” he says. To evolve from “solid” to “one of the best,” he says, “You grow your research portfolio. You make sure your clinical programs are Best in Show. You are strong in therapy. In management of diseases, you are the best in your region. You want the education that you provide to be a pipeline for the best and brightest of health care providers: pharmacists, nurses, and doctors.

“And we are definitely going to do it in a way that increases underrepresented minorities in science,” he adds.

Garcia has outlined a plan calling for biomedical research focused in four areas: health disparities, population health and health outcomes, precision health — that is, using genetic profiles to guide health care decisions and drug development — and neuroscience. In addition, he has emphasized diversity along with external partnerships and collaborations.

“By leveraging the UA’s already established strengths in behavior research, disease control and prevention, and community engagement, we are putting into practice new initiatives aimed at reducing health disparities that will positively impact the overall cost of health care for Arizona while improving the productivity and quality of life across the state, from children’s performance in school to the adult workforce’s on-the-job efficiency to the independence of our seniors,” Garcia told the Arizona Capitol Times.

His plan is part of the UA’s Never Settle strategic plan. It also complements the Arizona Board of Regents’ Arizona Higher Education Enterprise plan, which sets a goal for the UA to double its research portfolio by 2020. 

Garcia’s climb up the grueling ladder of high-prestige medical research in America was achieved, he says, with a single approach for himself: You outwork everybody in sight.

Garcia was born in El Paso. His father’s family has roots in Galicia, Spain, his mother’s family in the interior of Mexico. His family was prominent in Texas for more than 350 years. A great-great grandfather  — Skip’s namesake, Gregorio Nacianceno Garcia — was a captain in the Texas Rangers and a judge. His father was an electrical engineer, and when Skip was 7 he moved the family from Texas to Santa Maria, a large city in Santa Barbara County, to work for McDonnell Douglas at Vandenberg Air Force Base. His mother was the first Latina to direct a bilingual education program in California, one that served migrant farm workers. Her connection to the growers helped him find his first job at age 11. 

Garcia played football and basketball in high school, and he later coached his four children in all the sports they played. He still enjoys golf and tennis.

After high school, Garcia’s education included a University of Dallas pre-med B.S. in biology, his M.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, an internship and residency in internal medicine at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Albany Medical College.

Starting his career, he set out to be a leader in his field. At the University of Texas at Tyler, he established the first occupational lung center. His work led to his recruitment at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he became its youngest endowed full professor ever. He also was one of the highest funded faculty members ever.

Moving on to Johns Hopkins, as director of pulmonary and critical care medicine, he took his division from $2 million in annual NIH funding to $30 million and improved the pulmonary division’s ranking from somewhere in the top 20 to No. 1 at his departure. “When I got there, there was no diversity,” he adds. “When I left, there was quite a lot.” 

Next, at the University of Chicago, he was chair of the department of medicine, where federal grants increased to $80 million, the national ranking for funding rose from No. 25 to No. 10, and the overall ranking of the program jumped from No. 27 to No. 10. The diversity of staff also increased dramatically in its three residency programs.

Before his arrival at the UA, he was vice chancellor for research and later vice president for health affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Always in the background were echoes of Garcia’s early farm work, earning 50 cents for a crate of strawberries, filling three crates an hour. From berry picking, Garcia worked his way up to digging irrigation ditches for something he saw as “the wildest idea” then in the Santa Maria valley: new vineyards. Soon he was running Caterpillar tractors there and finally earning a decent salary.

On occasion, Garcia returns to the valley that offered his first job, to pick up a bottle or two at wineries that offer varieties described, perhaps, as “internationally distinguished” and having “great diversity.” 

Sounds a lot like the AHSC in the vision of Skip Garcia.