HomeVoteSecretary-Treasurer ▶ Zea Borok, MD, ATSF
Zea Borok, MD, ATSF


I currently serve as chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine (KSOM) of the University of Southern California (USC), a position I have held since July 2008. I previously served as director of the Fellowship Training Program in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at USC (from 2000-2013). I also direct the Hastings Center for Pulmonary Research (HCPR) and am the inaugural director of the Center for Gender Equity in Medicine and Science at the KSOM that I helped to establish. I have thus had significant academic leadership and administrative experience over the course of my career. In addition to focusing on developing excellence in both clinical and research arenas, fostering the development of trainees and junior faculty has been a top priority.

After graduating from medical school at the University of Cape Town in 1979, I immigrated to the United States. I undertook internship and residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh followed by fellowship training in Critical Care Medicine, also in Pittsburgh. I subsequently pursued a fellowship in Pulmonary Medicine at the Pulmonary Branch at the National Institutes of Health where I had the opportunity to conduct basic research while also leading translational studies related to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

I was recruited to USC as an instructor in 1991. I rose through the ranks and was promoted to associate professor of medicine (with tenure) in 2000 and subsequently professor in 2006, with a joint appointment in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine. I run an active NIH-funded research program focused on alveolar epithelial cell biology in the context of lung injury/fibrosis and repair. I have been continuously funded by the NIH since 1993, receiving an NHLBI Merit Award in 2010, and most recently an R35 Outstanding Investigator Award in 2017. I was recognized by the ATS in 2014 with a Recognition Award for Scientific Accomplishment and elected to the Association of American Physicians that same year. I have served as both an ad hoc and permanent member of the Lung Injury and Repair NIH Study Section. As a physician-scientist, I am well-positioned to bridge basic science and clinical/translational research, an aspect which aligns well with my vision for the ATS. In my previous role as training program director, I mentored fellows both in research and career development and continue to do so for junior faculty in the division and the HCPR. I was recognized for my contributions to pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine as well as my role as a mentor by the ATS Elizabeth Rich Award in 2017. With regard to formal leadership training, I was nominated by the Dean of USC for the Drexel Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program which I participated in during the 2018-2019 academic year. The program was truly transformative and provided me important insights into many facets of leadership.

I have been a member of the ATS since 1987 and have served in several leadership roles, including having served as chair of the Program Committee and chair of the Assembly on Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology (RCMB). I also served as chair of the International Conference Committee (2015-2017). In the latter capacity I served on the ATS Board of Directors, becoming familiar with ATS policies and procedures, a position I particularly enjoyed because of the opportunity it gave me to lead a group of highly motivated individuals with incredible dedication to the organization, as well as to have an impact on the structure and content of the conference. I have served on several RCMB Assembly committees (program, nominating and planning) and on ATS committees (program review, planning and evaluation and finance) and currently chair the Awards committee on which I served as a member from 2015-2018. I also served on the search committee for the recently appointed ATS Executive Director and currently serve as president of the ATS Association of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Division Directors.

My vision is for the ATS to be a nimble, diverse and inclusive organization that is responsive to its membership, with national and international recognition as the premiere professional society for lung science, by capitalizing on the expertise of its membership in basic, clinical/translational and population-based research.  This vision will advance the ATS mission of “improving health worldwide by advancing research, clinical care, and public health in respiratory disease, critical illness, and sleep disorders”. A nimble organization will be well-positioned to respond rapidly to external opportunities and threats, and internally to the needs of its members. Our strength, namely our focus on research and ability to translate this to human disease, should be a major focus of the organization so that we can continue to attract the best scientists and science to our meetings and to the organization. I would work to strengthen the scientific foundation of ATS, fostering the participation of basic scientists as members and contributors to the annual meeting, and encouraging collaborations between basic scientists and clinical researchers as well as cross-disciplinary research. Visibility of the ATS needs to be expanded beyond the medical lung community in order to increase overall impact of the organization. Unlike with heart disease and cancer, the public has a very limited understanding of the impact of lung disease on population health.  There is thus a need to educate the American public regarding the broader spectrum of lung disease and its impact on quality of life and survival for people of all ages. In this time of diminished NIH funding, the activities of the ATS Research Program assume an even more important role in supporting member research. Increasing the visibility of ATS and educating the public about its mission would enhance opportunities for fundraising thereby increasing our ability to fund research and support junior (and mid-level) investigators through the ATS. Fostering the development of junior faculty will be critical to development of a pipeline to ensure the future of the organization. The footprint of the ATS needs to be expanded beyond the annual international conference in order to create more opportunities for involvement of ATS membership and diversify revenue streams. While one of the strengths of the organization is its grass-roots operation, this should be complemented by a more strategic top-down view.

This position would provide me with the opportunity to interact widely with membership (both nationally and internationally) and influence the direction of ATS at a critical juncture for both clinical care and scientific research in the Unites States. Those who have worked with me know that, above all, I care deeply about whatever I undertake. It is this vision, passion and commitment that I would bring to the ATS if selected to serve in this leadership role.

What qualifies you to be the ATS president?

I have a long history of service to, and leadership within, the ATS. From 2004-2005, I served as program chair for the Assembly on Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology (RCMB). At the Assembly level, I served on the Planning Committee (2001-2006, 2013-14) and the Nominating Committee (2006-2007). From 2008-2010, I served as chair of the RCMB Assembly and, in that capacity, served on the ATS Board of Directors, providing me with the opportunity to interact with ATS leadership, staff, stakeholders, and members of patient advocacy groups. In the latter role, I came to appreciate the bigger picture of the ATS mission and its operations. I served as a member of the Program Review Subcommittee (2007-2008) and the Fellowship Committee (2012-2013), and currently serve as chair of the Awards Committee following having been a member of that committee from 2015-2018. I served as chair of the International Conference Committee (2015-2017), a position that I enjoyed because of the opportunity it afforded me to interact with a broad spectrum of talented Assembly leaders and to collaborate across the organization to create the best possible program. I currently serve as president of the Association of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Directors Association that is sponsored by the ATS. I served as associate editor for the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology (2008-2016) and continue to serve on the Editorial Board. Through these activities I have gained significant knowledge of ATS operations and have demonstrated my leadership ability and collaborative skills within the structure of ATS. I have also served in major leadership positions at my home institution, the University of Southern California, where I am the division chief, former training program director, and director of a moderately-sized research laboratory. Fostering the development of trainees and junior faculty has been a top priority for me. My approach to leadership is one of advocating, and creating opportunities, for others while also getting things done. The characteristics I have used in my leadership positions to date include a clear enunciation of goals as well as setting a clear agenda. In addition to leading by example, I try to be available to those I lead and open to dissenting points of view. I have had formal leadership training having recently completed the Drexel Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program. I would bring to the position of ATS President my passion for anything I take on, strong organizational, administrative and collaborative skills, my ability to motivate and lead, as well as an ability to create a vision for excellence.

The ATS Executive Committee works collaboratively to direct the ATS; can you describe how you have worked collaboratively to accomplish leadership?

Leadership at any level requires one to be able to influence others and collaborate - it rarely comes from the title alone. The role of chair of the International Conference Committee was extremely collaborative – I had to lead a group of highly motivated individuals with widely varying opinions and who represented widely divergent stakeholders, and get them to align to create the best possible program. Given the voluntary nature of the committee and the fact that administratively these people did not report to me as in an academic hierarchy, this work was necessarily collaborative. I learned from this experience that it was important for people to feel heard and if that process was fair and the rationale for decisions was explained, ultimately we could achieve alignment, if not complete agreement. I have been using the same strategy with the recently established Center for Gender Equity in Medicine and Science (GEMS) that I am leading at the University of Southern California where I have had to establish my leadership role through collaboration and influence, as  participation is once again voluntary. In my role as division chief, I have worked collaboratively with our hospital partners to garner support for new clinical programs and faculty, being able to make the argument that these were good for both of us.

What would you identify as strengths of the ATS?

The International Conference, the ATS Research Program and its support of junior investigators, the wonderful networking opportunities and friendships, and dedicated and excellent ATS staff are all strengths. But I think the strengths are best summarized by the sense of community that the ATS fosters and the sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. For me, the ATS has been a professional ‘home away from home’ that has contributed significantly to my academic success and this perception is shared by much of its membership.

What should ATS be doing at a higher level?

The ATS should be:

  1. increasing its visibility and impact beyond the lung community;
  2. improving the quality of ’outside science’ at the annual conference in order to attract and retain more PhD members;
  3. better aligning its various stakeholder groups;
  4. developing strategies for improved communication within the organization (and at the annual conference), including by embracing newer technologies;
  5. developing more initiatives to promote diversity;
  6. re-evaluating its organizational (Assembly) structure.

The organization tends to be slow to adapt to change. It is very dependent on membership dues and the annual conference as revenue sources. Figuring out ways to diversify revenue (e.g., through continuous medical education offerings and regional conferences) and to extend our reach beyond the annual conference is critical, especially during challenging economic times. I do understand, however, that one cannot take on all of these things simultaneously so any initiatives would need to be prioritized and will require alignment between the executive committee and ATS staff.

What do you see as present and future opportunities for the ATS?

  1. Promotion of its scientific leadership role by capitalizing on how basic science funded by ATS and/or presented at the ATS International Conference is being translated to human disease.
  2. Involvement of fellows and trainees early on in their careers to create a pipeline of future leaders.
  3. Greater involvement with the Association of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Program Directors organization that represents a large number of diverse stakeholders in the lung community.
  4. Being at the forefront of, and helping members respond to, changes in health care.

What are some of the threats you see to the ATS now and in the future?

  1. Financial – the organization is very dues-dependent so maintaining/expanding membership is key. With declines in NIH funding there is likely to be a decline in the number of basic scientists who support the organization. This will require careful stewardship of reserves and adaptability to change which for such a large organization can be challenging.
  2. Competition for membership from other lung organizations that have strong visibility and a large clinical base.
  3. Lack of clarity as to the role it provides to clinicians vs scientists; wanting to be too many things to too many people.

What role should ATS play as an international organization?

ATS should provide strong leadership to the international lung community – and already does in many ways. This includes participation of international members at the annual conference, collaborative publications/joint statements and greater understanding of the needs of international members. I think we tend to pay lip-service to international members without necessarily including them fully in committee membership. While some of this is practical because of distance, with current videoconferencing capabilities there should be far greater opportunities for face to face interactions and involvement by international members.

What should the ATS do for its membership and how would you advocate for the membership?

The ATS should create more opportunities for involvement beyond just the annual meeting, improve communication about what is happening in the organization, continue to increase research funding opportunities, keep members apprised of emerging changes/trends in health care and provide guidance as to how to adapt to these, and expand opportunities for board recertification and maintenance of certification (including online materials).

Regular surveys should be conducted to get feedback as to how ATS is serving its membership and to set priorities and the data should be trended over time. Importantly, those who have left the organization should also be polled to understand their reasons for leaving. We also need to strike a better balance between bottom-up versus top-down strategies for implementing initiatives. We could also do a better job of communicating within the organization – and even though not a strength of mine, the organization should be engaging more in social media in order to attract (and retain) younger members. One example where communication could be improved is the annual summit – the outcomes of which are generally not communicated to the membership at large. In this regard, we should be continually assessing the value to membership of various initiatives that are undertaken.

Can you give an example of a leadership accomplishment of which you are particularly proud?

As part of the ELAM program that I recently participated in, I was required to do an Institutional Action Project designed to have an impact beyond my immediate domain. Based on my own experience as a woman leader, I wanted to create a sustainable approach (rather than a task force) to address issues of sexual discrimination and gender inequity that are so prevalent in academic medical centers. To this end, I proposed to the Dean the establishment of a Center for Gender Equity in Medicine and Science (GEMS) at the Keck School of Medicine (KSOM) for which I was able to get her support and of which I am now the inaugural director. With the help of an organizational consultant we designed a structure for the Center, which is faculty run with input from the dean and administration. We have created three working groups, Sexual Harassment, Equity and Representation, and Leadership, with the goal of promoting a culture of safety and equity for all. Each group is engaged in identifying short- intermediate- and long-term priorities as well as strategies for implementation. This is an example of how I was able to translate a vision into reality through collaboration and influencing others. The Center is increasingly gaining recognition as the premier gender equity initiative at the KSOM and as an active representative in university-wide initiatives in this area.

How do you envision making time for this new leadership role?

That isn’t an easy question to answer (especially with regard to the travel commitments) except to acknowledge that we all know that if you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person! I have always been happiest when I’m doing many things and have always found the time to take on additional things about which I’m passionate. I have recently recruited a vice-chief for Critical Care to the division, something that was long overdue, who will be able to oversee clinical activities during my absences. I also have several other mid-level faculty who could assume greater leadership roles and to whom I would need to delegate in advance of the presidency year. I would like to continue my research program, which is something that is really important to me. While I am funded for the next four and a half years, I would need to plan to submit new grants to overlap with expiration of existing grants before assuming the presidency year so as not to have to submit grants during that year. I will also need to consider dropping some committee responsibilities both at USC and outside and limiting anything else that I take on.


View Dr. Borok's CV