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Medical Education
Center for Faculty Educators

The Academy Legacy Award

The Legacy Award was launched by the Academy in 2010. The recipient is selected annually by a UCSF School of Medicine reunion class to recognize a teacher who made a positive difference in their lives while they were in medical school--a difference that can still be felt today.

Teacher for Life: Virginia L. Ernster, PhD

Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MD and Virginia Ernster, PhD

Virginia Ernster first began teaching in the mid-1970s, with the introduction of the UCSF School of Medicine's epidemiology and biostatistics course for first-year medical students. Ernster, a Columbia University PhD student completing her dissertation and conducting research at UC Berkeley, was asked by the chair of epidemiology to teach at UCSF.

Ernster subsequently spent 25 years as the course's co-director, became a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and completed a stint as the department's chair. Her work as a cancer epidemiologist focused on breast cancer and on the health effects of tobacco use. To study population-based outcomes of mammography screening, she helped establish a comprehensive registry that included nearly all mammograms performed in San Francisco. Her research on tobacco landed her at spring training in Arizona interviewing major and minor league baseball players to evaluate the use of chewing tobacco. After lung cancer overtook breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, Ernster worked to increase awareness on the health effects of smoking for women, and later helped document the sobering facts as senior scientific editor of Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General, published in 2001.

Amid a busy research career locally and nationally, Ernster made teaching a high priority. Through the epidemiology course, she taught future physicians skills in interpreting medical literature and evaluating new study results, and brought in contemporary public health researchers to lecture on their investigations and serve as role models.

"Teaching initially involved a steep learning curve for me," she says, "but it was always at the top of my list of what mattered as a faculty member." 

For her work as a teacher, she was honored with the Academy's Legacy Award, which allows each year's UCSF School of Medicine 25th reunion cohort to recognize a medical school teacher who has made a positive and lasting difference in their lives.

Ernster says the award was an "unexpected gift and a gratifying affirmation that what we taught resonated years later."

Clearly she made an impact. The alumna from the Class of 1989 who submitted the Legacy Award nomination, said that Dr. Ernster "made the principles of clinical epidemiology come alive," and changed the course of her future. "The enthusiasm that Dr. Ernster brought to the subject has affected my entire career."

As for Ernster, teaching and learning, are continuing in her retirement years. She's learned Spanish and is fluent enough to tutor students in Spanish at City College of San Francisco. She's assisted public high school students, mostly immigrants, with their college applications. And, having completed a two-year training program at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she serves as a docent at the de Young and Legion of Honor museums.

Ernster says these pursuits are just a natural extension of the skills she learned during her years at UCSF, and a fitting continuation of a life dedicated to teaching.

By Dora Dalton

Photo credit: Noah Berger - Chancellor Sam Hawgood, presents Virginia Ernster, with the AME's Legacy Award in April 2014.