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Founding dean driving med school plan

Maria Pallavicini has the best office on campus. She'll tell you so.

As the dean of the school of natural sciences, she flipped a coin against the dean of engineering to determine who got which of the two dean suites in the science and engineering building at the new UC Merced campus.

She won, and chose an office with wide views of the entire campus and a front-row seat to every early sunset, Pallavicini remains convinced she made the right choice.

Since she moved in to the office, she has racked up another job title: vice provost for health sciences. Translation: it's her job to bring a medical school to UC Merced.

When it comes to talking about the medical school, Pallavicini, a youthful 56, is a lot like Barack Obama – a visionary unfettered by obstacles. Her red jacket may scream power, but her words whisper hope.

A world-class medical school will come to UC Merced.

No doubt in her mind.

"Ultimately what we want is an independently accredited medical school for the valley," she said. "It is what the valley wants and what the valley deserves."

Pallavicini is a relative newcomer to the Central Valley. She was raised in the Bay Area, in Walnut Creek, the daughter of first-generation parents from Poland and Hungary. She earned a BS degree from Berkeley in biochemistry, then a doctorate from the University of Utah in pharmacology.

Before arriving at UC Merced in 2002 to take one of the top administrative roles in building the school's natural sciences program, she was a faculty member at UCSF.

She has other ties to the UC system. Each of her three daughters graduated from one of its universities. The youngest has plans to apply to medical school. The eldest studied genetics at UC Santa Barbara, but decided to become a teacher instead because "she didn't want to work as hard as mom does," Pallavicini said. Her husband, Guenter Fischer, is an electrical engineering consultant.

Pallavicini herself thinks broadly about science. The tall bookshelf on a wall to the right of her desk offers a glimpse into her mind: a vast collection of the journal "Nature;" a book entitled "A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives;" and two copies of "The Cell."

Pallavicini says the key to a successful medical school is cross-pollination of research between genres on campus.That means more because she is still involved as a professor and researcher on campus herself.

She teaches a graduate course each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning – "Cancer Genetics and Tumor Biology." In it, she explores with her students the mysteries of molecular aberrations in cancer, tumor development and tumor immunology.

She says that the San Joaquin Valley is an interesting place for healthcare issues because it is both urban and rural.

"There are a lot more funding opportunities out there for rural health than for urban underserved," she points out.

Pallavicini is clearly focused on the planning for the medical school. She chaired the task force that created the medical school plan in 2004. She helped write the committee report and a white paper proposing the estsablishment of the school that was sent to the UC Merced chancellor.

That began a series of discussions and the start of a business plan.

The school is projected to enroll 32 students in 2013 but, Pallavicini said, after a contemplative pause, "there are a lot of considerations one takes into account when they think about that date and number." It is preliminary, very preliminary. When asked if the university is overreaching, Pallavicini was defiant.

San Diego and Irvine started planning for medical schools early in their existence, she explained, and UC Merced is going about the same thing in a careful and deliberate way.

Looking out the window of the office she won in the flip of a coin, she said, "If you don't have a vision and a plan for the future, then it is never going to happen."

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