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Clinical and Translational Science Center

Clinical and Translational Science Center


Diana L. Farmer - the accidental translational scientist


Diana L. Farmer, M.D.,
chair of the UC Davis
Department of Surgery

present themselves by accident. Literally. At least for Diana L. Farmer, chair of the UC Davis Department of Surgery, that seems to be the case. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in biology from Wellesley College, Farmer embarked on a career as a marine biologist. On her way to a final interview for a Rhodes Scholarship, she was seriously injured in a car accident that caused her to miss the appointment. The experience of being hospitalized and the series of decisions she was required to make regarding her own medical treatment aroused a deep interest in the process and ethics of medical decision making and led to a career in medicine.

And what a career it has been. After completing pre-med studies at Harvard and the College of Idaho, she obtained her M.D. degree from the University of Washington, where she served her internship and residency in general surgery with the intention of becoming a trauma surgeon. A rotation in pediatrics piqued her interest in applied embryology and surgical treatment of birth defects. Fellowships in pediatric surgery and surgical oncology that followed, along with a string of positions and experiences in medical centers across the country, have led to a level of recognition that few female surgeons have ever achieved. The second American woman ever inducted as a fellow into the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Farmer was also elected as a member in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Internationally recognized as a distinguished fetal and neonatal surgeon and preeminent authority on tissue engineering and stem cell therapies for spina bifida and other childhood disorders, Farmer could land a prestigious position with practically any academic medical institution of her choosing. Her decision to accept a position at UC Davis was no accident.

Farmer developed strong familiarity with UC Davis in the late ’90s, after joining UC San Francisco Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, where she became clinical director of children’s surgical services. Farmer’s use of sheep as an investigational model in some of her studies of myelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida, prompted her search for an institution that integrates translational pathways among human and veterinary medicine scholars.

“One of the things that attracted me here was that the whole time I was at UCSF, I had always done my fetal sheep surgery research at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine,” Farmer said.

“The CTSC also attracted me to UC Davis. I definitely think of that as a very strong asset, particularly for someone like me who is interested in translational work. Having the support of a CTSC is critically important. My work at UCSF translating the lab work that we had done in sheep to human physiology was augmented by the availability of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) there, and having that as a resource here is important. I was impressed to learn that UC Davis has one of the first CTSAs.”

Farmer’s interest in global and rural health care also influenced her decision to join the UC Davis faculty. “UC Davis is the only academic medical center that is committed to inland California, serving a rural population segment,” said Farmer, a Chicago native whose family relocated to Boise, Idaho, when she was a teenager. “The kind of training that you need to be skilled in a rural health-care environment as a surgeon is similar to what you need in an international or global health environment, and some of the maldistribution problems in the workforce in America are not that dissimilar to rural workforce maldistributions in developing countries.”

Farmer concluded that all of her interests would best be served by joining UC Davis in 2011 as chair of the Department of Surgery, where she holds the Pearl Stamps Stewart endowed professorship. She also is surgeon-in-chief of UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

“I have found the interdisciplinary opportunities at UC Davis really attractive,” said Farmer, who is conducting clinical trials on the effectiveness and safety of fetal spina bifida treatments. “We have easy access to collaborate with our colleagues in biomedical engineering and in veterinary medicine, and can bring all of those to bear on human health as well.”

Perhaps serendipity is a better word to describe the accident that was instrumental in creating this prominent surgeon and translational scientist.