Double Distinction for Dr. Stephen Baum
During his 50-plus years at Einstein, Dr. Stephen Baum reached his professional peak in two realms, so it is fitting that he recently became distinguished professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology. Only three other current faculty members hold distinguished professorships; only one of them holds two.
Over the years, Dr. Baum also has made many friends. Their recollections illustrate how eminently deserving of distinction he is.
A Giant in the Field
Steve Baum arrived at Einstein from NYU School of Medicine in 1968 with appointments in medicine, cell biology, and microbiology & immunology and a passion for virology. He took the board exam in infectious diseases in 1972, the first year it was offered—“It was a young field,” he said—and by 1973 was researching the replication of adenovirus, a DNA virus that causes many human ills.
That same year he became director of Einstein’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which guides future physician-scientists to an M.D.-Ph.D. degree. Soon after, he and two co-directors established the first infectious diseases division at Einstein and Montefiore.
“He is a giant in the field,” noted Dr. Yaron Tomer, professor and chair of medicine as well as professor of microbiology & immunology.
Even so, he always met young doctors-to-be on their level. Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski (M.D. ’82), professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology at Einstein, and division chief of infectious diseases at both Einstein and Montefiore, looks back fondly on her medical-school days with her mentor. “Steve taught the infectious diseases course and is one reason I went into the field,” she said. “During my fellowship, he was always approachable—at a time when the relationship between mentor and trainee was usually more formal. Once when my arm was so swollen and painful from a tetanus shot that I couldn’t put on my coat, he covered the service for me.”
So Far Yet So Near
In 1987, Dr. Baum moved to Beth Israel Medical Center as chair of medicine. Yet he continued to teach at Einstein. “I guess that’s how people knew I still loved the place,” he said. When Beth Israel sought a medical-school affiliate, he brokered the deal with Einstein’s Dean Dominick Purpura.
“I did my medicine rotation at Beth Israel,” said Dr. Allison Ludwig (M.D. ’04), now associate dean for student affairs and associate professor of medicine at Einstein. “Though Steve was a busy chair, he met with us every week and even wrote one of my letters of recommendation for residency. He is a warm, genuinely caring person who right away took an interest in advancing my career.”
Like Dr. Ludwig, Dr. Edward Burns (M.D. ’76), now executive dean, had known Dr. Baum since his student days and, by 2007, he felt Dr. Baum had been away long enough. After consulting with the dean, Dr. Burns offered him the senior associate deanship for student affairs along with this question: “Steve, would you like to come home?” The rest is history.
Young Minds and Hearts
Upon his return to the Bronx, Dr. Baum was joined in the office of student academic affairs by Dr. Nadine Katz (M.D. ’87), who first served as associate dean for students and then senior associate dean for student academic affairs. “We were quite the dynamic duo, and it was wonderful to work with Steve,” recalled Dr. Katz, who is now vice president of Montefiore Medical Center and medical director of its Einstein campus, as well as professor of obstetrics & gynecology and women’s health at Einstein. “Students always knew we were there to help and to advocate for them.”
Dr. Baum’s compassion in dealing with students in academic distress is legendary. “I’m into people preserving their egos, even if you have to tell them something less than laudatory,” he said. Now senior advisor for students, he added, “I give a lot of consideration to someone being able to leave a meeting with me feeling better than when they walked in. I want them to feel relief that the world isn’t ending and there are options.”
“Steve encourages students to take ownership of their pathway through life,” said Dr. Joshua Nosanchuk, professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology, and senior associate dean for medical education. “A favorite and fitting proverb of his is ‘When’s the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. When’s the next best time? Today.’”
Dr. Baum’s educational philosophy has its creative aspects as well, among them recommending that students watch the 1950 Japanese movie Rashomon. “A lot of my job is listening to people’s stories,” he said. “I want students to be aware that most people are telling the truth—the truth as they see it.”
He also surprises and delights students, staff, and faculty when he dresses up as Professor Dumbledore from Harry Potter or puts on a Goofy hat for Einstein ceremonies. “Not every situation allows for humor, but I believe you can find fun in almost everything,” he said. “It humanizes the interaction between faculty and students.”
Among Dr. Baum’s other sartorial elements are his bowties—the real thing, not clip-ons. The tradition started when he was a student in the NYU anatomy lab. “More than once, my necktie dipped into a cadaver, and I was ruining a lot of good ties!” he said. “A lab partner wore bowties, so I asked him to teach me how to tie one properly.” Today, his bowtie collection numbers between 300 and 400.
Faculty Advisor Too
Students aren’t the only ones who pursue his sage counsel. “When I have a touchy issue, I’ll talk it over with him and most often take his advice,” said Dr. Burns.
Dr. Myles Akabas (M.D./Ph.D. ‘83/’83), professor of physiology & biophysics, of medicine, and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, was an MSTP student when Dr. Baum was director and still remembers the day his mentor hooded him. “Steve is a wonderful mentor, colleague, and friend,” said Myles. “In 2004 I became MSTP director, and he has a gentle way of nudging you toward the right decision without telling you what to do.”
Christina Chin, director of student affairs, agreed. She shared, “I worked in Einstein’s registrar’s office when Steve was at Beth Israel, and I had dealings with him about our students who were rotating there. When he returned here, he recruited me to join his team. Then he pushed me to take on new challenges, and I kept climbing the ladder.”
Dr. Baum’s vision for excellence was as insightful as his advice. In 2014, in recognition of Christina’s influential role in medical student education, Einstein’s graduating class attempted to nominate her for induction into the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, a distinction only permitted for those with a faculty appointment.
Dr. Ludwig has a similar story of encouragement coupled with opportunities to excel. “When I joined student affairs, from day one Steve was grooming me for the leadership position I’m in now. He is selfless in his mentorship.”
Dr. Baum continues to teach—currently microbiology & immunology, bioethics, and the introduction to clinical medicine—and co-directs the department of medicine’s strategic planning education committee. He regularly comments on developments in infectious disease for the New England Journal of Medicine’s Journal Watch and Einstein’s blog The Doctor’s Tablet, and he serves on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
“He’s always up-to-date, and demonstrates what a professor does: lifelong teaching and lifelong learning,” said Dr. Mimoza Meholli, assistant dean for student affairs and assistant professor of medicine.
In a Word
Some who know Dr. Baum describe him as “an oracle” or “Buddha-like,” but another word comes up more often. “He has what we think of as wisdom,” said Dr. Steven Porcelli, professor and chair of microbiology & immunology and professor of medicine.
Dr. Pirofski shared this view, noting, “I’ve often turned to him for advice, and he responds with wisdom.”
Dr. Nosanchuk summed it up: “We’re fortunate that Steve returned to Einstein and has been able to share his wisdom with us in so many ways.”
Posted on: Friday, March 06, 2020