Debra Schwinn’s route to The College of Wooster was anything but direct. A talented violinist from nearby Mansfield, Schwinn had hoped to pursue her passion for music somewhere in the Northeast, perhaps at The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University or The Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. But in February of her senior year of high school, her father suggested that she consider an area of study that would lead to “more reliable, long-term employment.” So Schwinn, who also had a strong interest in the sciences, renewed her search and quickly settled on Wooster, primarily because of its highly acclaimed chemistry program.
Shortly after arriving on campus in the fall of 1975, Schwinn had her first encounter with legendary professor of chemistry Ted Williams. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘you’re not happy,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘no, I’m fine.’ He said ‘no you’re not,’ and so he invited me to join him for what I later learned was one of his legendary walks.”
Schwinn confessed to Williams that even though she was going to major in chemistry, she still wanted to pursue her love for music, and because Wooster was between violin professors at the time, she was not able to get the instruction she desired. Williams assured Schwinn that he would find a solution, and he did.
“He used all of his musical connections and made arrangements for me to take lessons with a violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra,” she says. “He even found a way for the dean of students’ family to let me tag along to Cleveland on Saturdays when their daughter was taking guitar lessons. It was another example of the ways in which Ted went above and beyond for his students.”
Schwinn commuted to Cleveland on Saturdays, played in the Wooster Symphony Orchestra for a couple of years, and taught violin to young musicians in the community. She also played the fiddle in a popular bluegrass band called Appalachian Spring and was a member of Wooster Christian Fellowship, but most of the rest of her time was focused on chemistry. Despite being class valedictorian in high school, Schwinn says she had to work hard to excel academically. “Wooster wasn’t easy,” she remembers. “I had to spend a lot of time on my studies.”
That time and effort paid rich dividends. After graduation, she was accepted at Stanford University’s medical school. “I had planned to pursue cardiac surgery, but I wound up doing cardiac anesthesiology,” she said. Schwinn did her internship in internal medicine and anesthesiology residency at the University of Pennsylvania and then moved to Duke University School of Medicine for a cardiac anesthesiology fellowship followed by a molecular pharmacology research fellowship.
She joined the medical school faculty at Duke in 1987 and for the next 20 years helped launch and lead a variety of programs, including running her own molecular pharmacology laboratory, where she studied alpha1-adrenergic receptors, and serving as director of cardiovascular genomics in Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, where she developed the field of perioperative genomics, or how patients’ genetic makeup affects their response to surgery. Schwinn also was involved in the human genome project as it unfolded in 2000 through a sabbatical at the National Institute for Genome Sciences at the NIH in Bethesda, MD.
“I was able to apply all of the fundamentals of I.S. to many of my projects at Duke,” says Schwinn, who researched “Quail muscle fructose-1, 6-Bisphosphatase” under Monte Borders for her senior Independent Study project in 1978-79. “In their third year of medical school, Duke students are required to complete a research experience. I ran that program between 2001-2005. It was like directing I.S. all over again.”
Schwinn received the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Excellence in Research Award in 2001, was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, and the Association of American Physicians in 2005. She is one of 30 or so Americans ever named a Fellow of the Royal College of Anaesthetists.
In 2007, Schwinn left the comfort and prestige of Duke to become professor and chair of the Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine at The University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Five years later, the University of Iowa came calling and Schwinn was named dean of the College of Medicine.
Throughout her career, Schwinn has been a highly respected spokesperson for the role of discovery science in unlocking the pressing questions in perioperative disease while advocating for the importance of expanded research. She has been especially focused on gaining insight into acute and chronic stress on a patient during the period surrounding surgery.
“Deb’s research is a success model for many young investigators seeking research in anesthesiology,” said one of her colleagues. “It should be said that she takes her responsibility as a leader in our discipline very seriously.”
Indeed Schwinn is serious about research, and her Wooster roots guide her to this day. “Wooster taught me how to think critically,” she says. “It’s where I learned how to work through a problem, rather than simply answer a question.”
Perhaps the most valuable lesson Schwinn learned during her undergraduate years was that it’s not about who you are socially, but rather what you do with your talents. “That’s what I appreciate most about Wooster,” she says. “Making a difference in the world is what really matters.”
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