By: Prof Thomas Coffman (Tom) 
Dean-designate, Duke-NUS;
Director, Programme in Cardiovascular & Metabolic Disorders (CVMD)

Other Affiliations: James R. Clapp Professor of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center
Born: West Virginia, USA
Places lived: Tennessee, Ohio, Puerto Rico, North Carolina
Alma mater: University of Pennsylvania & Ohio State University (M.D.)

I am grateful that over the years I have been able to pursue my passions both inside and outside of medicine.  Since I was young, I have had a love for music.  Based on my fascination with Jimi Hendrix, I picked up the guitar as a teenager.  I began playing in rock bands in high school and college, and resumed my musical “career” when I was a medical resident at Duke University.

Back then, I was in a rhythm-and-blues band called Blast Crisis, started with other medical residents.  The band played together in bars and clubs around North Carolina for almost 15 years. I finally had to give it up when I became Chief of Nephrology at Duke.

A blast (crisis) from the past: Tom and his band members

The band used to rehearse in the basement of my house and my eldest son Stephen, as a very young child, was really intrigued by the instruments, especially drums.  Like the band in Spinal Tap, we had several drummers over the years, and one of the drummers taught Stephen the basics.  He really took to it and is now a successful professional musician.  Today, I live my musician side vicariously through him.

In my spare time now, I still like to play the guitar, mostly old rock songs by the Rolling Stones and others. It is one of those things that I do to relax, get my mind off work and use the other side of my brain.

Another of my other passions is food. I enjoy both cooking and eating. I do not do much cooking here in Singapore because there are so many good places to eat. My apartment is near the Maxwell Hawker Centre, so I frequently enjoy the fish beehoon, chicken rice and porridge there. I also particularly like the dumplings from Din Tai Fung.  And there are many other interesting restaurants in my neighborhood, which I am systematically working my way through. I will eat just about anything, and yes, I have tried durians! I am still working on that. Durian is clearly an acquired taste.

However, when it comes to cooking, grilling and smoking all kinds of meat, including a good steak, is my favourite. I have a nice ceramic grill back in North Carolina, which my sons gave me as a gift. They also like to cook.  Often on Sundays, we get together and cook a big family meal. These Sunday cookouts are a regular family activity and a nice way to spend time together.  My wife Judy and I have three sons, Stephen, Robert and Evan, and one grandson, Avery. The Y-chromosome is strong in the Coffman family! I also have a great daughter-in-law, Summer, and one sister, Cynthia, who also works at Duke! She is an accomplished bio-statistician.

Meet the Coffmans! 

I first learned about Duke-NUS in 2005 when the founding Dean, Professor Sandy Williams asked me to join the curriculum advisory committee with Prof Sally Kornbluth. In 2010, I made my first visit to Duke-NUS after Dr Victor Dzau, former CEO and President of Duke University Health System and Chancellor for Health Affairs, asked me to consider becoming the first director of the CVMD Signature Research Program.  I accepted that position in October 2010.

I took on the role as Executive Vice-Dean last year, after being encouraged to consider the possibility of succeeding Dean Ranga Krishnan. It was a timely opportunity as I was at the point in my career where I wanted to do something on a bigger scale, while maintaining my ties with Duke where I have worked for 35 years. I was excited about the opportunity of working with the terrific team at Duke-NUS, plus, I really enjoy Singapore.

2014 was very hectic as, until this January, I maintained my position as Chief of the Duke Division of Nephrology. The transition is a bit more manageable now. Dean Ranga and Prof Ivy Ng, SingHealth Group CEO, have been fantastic in orientating me into the role.

I also credit my smooth transition first into the CVMD programme and subsequently the Dean’s Office to the terrific administrative support I have received. The Duke-NUS team is phenomenal to work with at every level. I think this is one of the key distinguishing features of Duke-NUS – it really feels like a family. It is a privilege to work with various teams and talents in the school.

The school celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and I will work to ensure that we continue our trajectory of excellence and accomplishment. Moving forward, a major focus will be on continuing to build a world-class Academic Medical Centre with our partners at SingHealth. This will be the cornerstone of our education and research activities. We are building on a great foundation so I am excited about the possibilities ahead. It will be great!

The Insider was curious to find out more about Tom and what working with him is like so we spoke to his personal assistants, Shanthi Rajaram and Mah Li Lian for some inside scoop! 

Shanti Rajaram (Secretary, Programme in CVMD)
Shanti was Tom's secretary from 2010-2014

I have always admired Tom for his thoughtfulness pragmatism and most of all, his easy-going attitude! We used to have some challenges managing his office keys as his flights are normally over the weekends. We resolved it with a very simple ‘hide-and-seek’ – that’s how easy-going he is! He will always have my support and appreciation!“ 

Mah Li Lian (Management Assistant Officer, Dean’s Office)
Li Lian currently manages Tom's schedules

Tom is very independent, flexible and easy-going. He does not even have any preferences when it comes to window or aisle seats on planes. His favorite phrase is “Sounds like a plan!”

L-R: Shanti Rajaram, Tom Coffman & Mah Li Lian