Alison Whelan

Alison Whelan speaks in cap and gown

Alison Whelan, MD, chuckles when she says that she’s been here forever. She attended the Washington University School of Medicine and afterward joined the faculty, rising to professor of medicine and senior associate dean for education.

Now, as she prepares to leave the university to take on a leadership position at a national organization, she credits her experiences at Washington University for equipping her for her new role.

“I had a number of really good mentors who said follow your heart and do what matters to you,” Whelan said, “because if you put your best self into what you’re passionate about, you’ll be able to make a great change.”

Alison Whelan, MD

Whelan, originally from Chicago, came to the medical school with no intention of staying in St. Louis. While she was chief resident, she discovered her interest in medical education. The choice to pursue education over research or clinical tracks might be the less common road, but Whelan was encouraged to follow her interests.

“I had a number of really good mentors who said follow your heart and do what matters to you,” Whelan said, “because if you put your best self into what you’re passionate about, you’ll be able to make a great change.”

Whelan’s experience at WashU gives her a special perspective on how diversity at the university has evolved.

“Leadership recognized a long time ago the need for more diversity, whether you’re talking about gender or under-represented minorities, but I think it’s been a national dialogue and engagement,” she said. “Universities and academic health centers have an understanding that diversity and inclusion are more than something we need to talk about. They are something we need to do.”

“Sometimes when something doesn’t go right, it’s as much your approach as it is barriers. It can be a combination of things. So it’s ‘How can I figure this place out, this barrier, or these people or this problem?’ and then ‘Do I need to change the approach I’m taking for that as well?’ So yeah, it is an opportunity.”One of the ways the school has been making the change from dialogue to engagement is through the Women Faculty Leadership Institute. The institute is just one of the university’s efforts to diversify the leadership structure. Whelan, who went through the training, praises the course, describing it as “Phenomenal — I think that if every woman who is in a leadership position or aspires to be in a leadership position at WashU could take advantage of it, that would be terrific. I actually think that a version of that should be available to not just women but all faculty in leadership positions.”

Medical Graduation at Americas Center.

The institute helped Whelan grow as a leader, building on her outlook on experiences as “opportunities for growth.”Whelan noted the institute gave participants a university-specific network of peers and allowed their discussions to delve into university culture. The curriculum is dispersed through five day-long conferences spread through the first five months of the year. This allows for immersion but also is designed to help participants maximize what they retain each day. Whelan added that the intervals between sessions gave them time to build upon the material and that the emphasis on discussion allowed for deep conversation and substantive connections.

Now, she is moving into a new position as chief medical education officer at the Association for American Medical Colleges. There, Whelan will continue to refine and direct the future of medical education in collaboration with academic counterparts. Whelan has been credited for her excellent work in overhauling and refining education at the medical school. With her leadership experience in medical education at Washington University, she is well prepared for her new position. Though she’s leaving, she still has a fond place in her heart for WashU.

“WashU is honestly — this is one reason I’m going to miss being here — really full of extraordinarily bright people who strive for excellence but are generally nice. That’s a culture that I really like and that I will do my best to continue to foster. I learned that here.”