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Published in Alumni Publications on January 01, 2012
Dr. James Keeton, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs, congratulates Dr. Helen Turner during a February 14 ceremony where he announced the Academic Affairs conference room would be named in her honor.
Dr. James Keeton, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs, congratulates Dr. Helen Turner during a February 14 ceremony where he announced the Academic Affairs conference room would be named in her honor.

UMMC's chief academic officer calls it a career

By Jack Mazurak

Dr. Helen Turner stepped out of the elevator Feb. 14 and was surprised to find a full house of admiring faculty, staff and even her own family members waiting in the lobby outside her office, that of the Medical Center’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

The carefully orchestrated event – verging on a state secret – marked the anticipated retirement this summer of one of UMMC’s leading lights of the last three decades.  The festivities culminated with the announcement that the Academic Affairs conference room would be named in her honor.

Turner, ever modest and known as a stickler for following policy, laughed and said “I thought you had to die to have something named for you!”

Over her 28 years on the faculty, Turner has served many roles, including physician, mentor, volunteer, administrator and proud UMMC alumna.

Turner earned both a Ph.D. and M.D. at the Medical Center, which may have led her to a deep appreciation not only for medicine and teaching, but for commitment to serving her alma mater.

Turner’s high-power day job in academic affairs came as a second career. Her first love is teaching.

A Kosciusko native, she taught kindergarten and fifth grade in Arizona while her husband, Jim, was stationed at Fort Hauchuca. In Louisiana, she instructed fifth grade.

Moving back to Mississippi, she wanted to continue teaching but knew she would eventually need a master’s degree.

“I’d always had a leaning toward science,” she said. “I picked microbiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center because it was a good program.”

Turner’s pursuit of a master’s morphed into a mission to earn a Ph.D., which she received in 1975. But she didn’t stop there. Doctoral classes that she took alongside medical students sparked a realization: If they could handle the rigors of medical school coursework, some of which was the same as in her program, she could too.

“It was something I always thought I’d like to do but never thought I could,” she said.

Growing up with no M.D.s among her family and friends, Turner said she never saw the road to physician-hood as clearly attainable.

“I think for me, getting the microbiology Ph.D. set me on the path to pursue a career in infectious diseases,” she said.

She entered the University of Mississippi School of Medicine and graduated in 1979.

Following her residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in infectious diseases, Turner joined the UMMC faculty as a staff physician at the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery VA Medical Center in 1984. She hasn’t stopped climbing since.  At the VA she held leadership positions as associate chief of staff for education and chief of medical service, the first woman in those positions.

In 1993, she moved to the UMMC campus to take a position as School of Medicine associate dean for academic affairs. In 2003, she became UMMC’s first associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

As the chief academic officer for UMMC, Turner has worked with students and faculty in all schools and has presided over an increase in student enrollment of 17 percent over the last five years. This growth occurred while the schools maintained the quality of their academic programs.

Additionally, she has served the Mississippi State Medical Association in positions as secretary, member of the board of trustees, president-elect and president. She served 10 years on the American Medical Association’s Mississippi delegation.

Academic administration presents its own opportunities and rewards, Turner said, but taking care of patients or getting in front of a classroom still pushes all the right buttons.

Although she has a large role as an administrator, including the oversight of UMMC’s successful accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools last year, Turner has continued to instruct class sections on infectious disease, pharmacy and infection control.

“I think of myself as a teacher at heart and a physician,” she said.  “I have been blessed to have many opportunities in my career, more than I could have ever imagined.  But I have to say of all of the things I have done, the most rewarding have been taking care of patients and teaching students, residents and fellows.”