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Faculty Spotlight

E. Chester (Chip) Ridgway, M.D., MACP

E. Chester Ridgway III, more commonly known as Dr. Chip Ridgway, is a Professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes, the Executive Vice Chair in the Department of Medicine, the Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Medicine, and recently a humble recipient of the Distinguished Professor Award. Originally from Cody, Wyoming, Chip completed medical school here at the University of Colorado in 1968 and returned to join the faculty in 1985.

How did you become interested in science and medicine?

My father was a family practitioner and the first doctor in Cody. One of his jobs was as a county health officer so when we were little, our Sundays involved getting into an old jeep, heading into the plains of Wyoming, and hunting down people who hadn’t been vaccinated. Some sheep herders and cow people didn’t get much health care back then and hadn’t received vaccinations for ticks or smallpox. As I went through high school I saw the kinds of medical services my father could provide and got interested in medicine. After college I came to medical school here at the University of Colorado intending to become a family practitioner, like my dad. But then I was fortunate enough to get an internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and everything changed at that point. It’s a very academically rigorous internship and residency. I got to interact on a very academic level with a lot of very smart people and that changed my view from being a family practice person to first an internist and then a specialist in endocrinology.

Why endocrinology?

Endocrinology was one of the disciplines that could actually offer patients a very accurate measurement of their specific endocrine problem. There was great pathophysiology in all these measurements so we could understand things at a much greater level than cardiologists, for instance. Since that time all the other disciplines have become very sophisticated too but at the time endocrinology was a field where the doctor and patient together could really understand what was going on. Also, endocrinology is a field where physicians can actually help patients get their health back to normal.

What interested you to pursue the career you’ve made for yourself?

I call it the perfect career because you get to do discovery in the morning, you get to apply discoveries to patients in the afternoon, and if you’re real lucky and have students, you get to teach in the evening. It’s never a boring day, it’s always exciting. You’re always dealing with really smart people and people who have great new ideas, you’re always on the cutting edge. It has been a blessing to have been able to have that kind of career.

The Senior Associate Dean thing was two forces meeting at the right time. I had been Division Head in Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes for 10 years and I wanted to expand my responsibilities. At the same time Dean Krugman had just taken his position and needed help in the research area, so that’s how the position of Senior Associate Dean happened.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

Dan Federman, M.D. was Executive Vice Chair of Medicine as Massachusetts General Hospital at the time I was interning. He was an endocrinologist, a splendid teacher, and a great role model. Also, Dan Foster, M.D. who was Chair of Medicine at Dallas Southwest Medical Center has always been at the top of the list. And John Baxter, M.D. who was a molecular endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco. 

How would you describe your professional interests?

As far as medicine is concerned in academics, I always had a strong interest in endocrinology because I find it interesting. But I think it’s really important to have discovery as part of that and so I’ve always tried to have part of my life be either at the bench doing molecular endocrinology or on a general clinical research center doing translational research.

And the teaching and education part, that was really keyed by Dr. Federman because he was a role model for education. I’ve tried to model my teaching after his to an extent. I’ve also been privileged to be able to participate in endocrine societies and other organizations. I think it’s important to get representation of my particular field out on a national and international level, to promote it any way I can.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

I like to think I’m working for the social good as opposed to financial rewards. I’m driven more by the question, “Is it going to be worthwhile for the population, the people in Colorado, the people around the world?” I would rather spend my time on that than thinking about if I am going to get paid for it. I’ve also always been highly, highly interested in new discovery. I think the most exciting thing is actually seeing something brand new that’s going to work. To this day, as I near the end of my career, I can say the most fun I had was being challenged by some new concept. Maybe something that I hadn’t even worked on myself but only read about. I think it’s really cool to see something that the basic science field has come up with be applied to helping people with their disease.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

It was a broadening from being able to understand an individual patient’s problem, to actually understanding their disease, to understanding the origin of their disease. When I was in medical school we understood what was happening with a given patient and what their problem was, but we didn’t understand what the dimensions of that problem were for the total person. And we had no idea what was causing it, whether it was some outside force or something internally or something genetic. And now, in 2012 we are able, in many, many instances, to drill down to that level.

We’re right on the verge of personalized medicine, which is going to raise a whole number of wonderful questions. This idea that genetics, which you’ve had since your conception, could be predisposing you to either excellence in something or a disease in something is incredible. I think we’re on the verge of knowing that, just imagine the possibilities. 

How did you choose the University of Colorado?

I’d been raised in the West. My kids were pre-teens and they were getting a little too used to being Boston people and I wanted to make sure they knew they were from Wyoming and that they had a strong Western culture. So I’d been looking to come back for a long time. Interestingly, my father, who was in the West and very elderly at that point, kept telling me I should stay at Harvard and coming back home would be a mistake. Within a year of his passing I had accepted the job in Colorado because I was determined I wanted to come back. Let’s say the rest is history.

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

I saw my father in his practice and he was not an academician, he chose not to be an academician but instead to be a family practitioner. I saw what kind of life he led; much of his day was doing the same thing over and over. He never got the relief of discovery. He never got to be on the cutting edge of something every day. And he never got to teach, he would have been a splendid teacher. The things that happen in academic medicine, and the excitement of being around discovery, is one of the biggest gifts and completely distinguishes a career in academics from a career in private practice. 

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

That’s easy - never consider that you’re through learning. Granted, there will be areas in your lives when you go on steep learning curves, like when you first start medical school, internship, fellowship, etc. The trick is to go through your life, after you’ve specialized, building in those learning curves, so that your life is a series of learning new aspects. I think if you ever stop continuous learning you’re going to become bored and probably stale in your field. It won’t give you the fulfillment that you have if you actually continually need, want, desire, and achieve this cycle of learning.  

If you could change one thing about the world of medicine, what would it be?

The one thing that has seemed to hinder what I view as the wonders of medicine are all the regulations of the federal government. I understand that patient protection, protection of integrity, conflict of interest, and all of that has to be done, but it would certainly be nice if we could have that done more efficiently. That’s a real drag on all physicians and a pretty big issue. There are some different ways we could fund discovery that are a little bit more equitable and generous, which would help us move ahead much faster. I personally think that in many areas where we were leading the world, we’ve now fallen behind. Other countries are speeding ahead of us in some areas. I wish there were a way to satisfy so many people who want to be discoverers, but we just don’t have the resources to do it. If I could change that, I would.

What do you see as "the future" of medicine?

We are now at such a basic level of the genetics and the environment that we’re going to have all sorts of possibilities that we never had before. Personalized medicine is definitely going to be on the forefront and bring incredible opportunities. With that, there are going to be some scary parts and things we’re going to have to wrestle with as a social culture and as a moral culture. I think it’s going to be a brand new world.

What are some of your outside interests?

Horseback riding has always been a big part of the family because we were all raised on horses. I love cycling so I’m a pretty avid cycler. I’m also a tennis player. When I have free time, a lot of it has to do with sports and I’m also a pretty avid gardener, I have a lot of flowers I take care of.

Click here to view the CV of Dr. Ridgway

March 2012