Roger Vaughan: Master builder with a vision

By Dr Chua Li Min, Science writer

Getting personal with the world’s first smart bandage

Twenty-three-year-old Roger Vaughan was flipping through The New York Times one lunch break in winter when one of the ads in the career marketplace caught his eye.

It was an advertisement for a job in the lab of famed public health researcher and anti-smoking activist Ernst Wynder, known for his landmark study that demonstrated an association between the chemicals in cigarettes and cancer.

“Everyone said you’ll never get a job through The New York Times. But I applied anyway,” recalled Vaughan, now a professor and Associate Dean for Research at Duke-NUS. “I was convinced that I was just filling in the HR boxes—that they already had the candidate in mind but I just thought it would be a good experience to apply and interview,” he offered by way of explanation.

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After interviewing with Wynder himself, Vaughan, a pre-med student at the time with an interest in improving population health got the job—much to his surprise.

“Perhaps he (Wynder) saw something in there, that this was at least a person willing to think outside the box.”

Although juggling the demands of college and work as a research assistant was challenging, it was not a matter of choice for Vaughan as he needed the money for food and rent. Compared with Maryland and California where he had grown up, “New York was and remains expensive,” he stated matter-of-factly.  

Then again, this balancing act was nothing compared with his previous job as a builder renovating historical houses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Gramercy Park, New York (a small neighbourhood just off Union Square in Manhattan) which often required him to work for long hours outside in winter when temperatures could be arctic for days.

“I thought I was going to be a house builder or renovator,” said Vaughan. “But it was quite hard, and could be very cold, and with no health insurance, it didn’t seem like something I could really do 10 or 15 years from now—or for the rest of my life.”

Finding the right bricks for his career

Wanting to make a difference to the health system, Vaughan decided to pursue pre-med studies at Columbia, taking classes in chemistry and biology to prepare for medical school.

But even as a student, Vaughan’s forte lay more in breaking down and understanding complex data than dealing with the emotions of patients.

Whenever his peers or colleagues came across a new journal article, Vaughan was their go-to person. “People would ask me to help them understand the article or the science,” he said.

When he wasn’t at college, Vaughan spent his time with Wynder’s group at what was then the American Health Foundation, working on a study examining the relationship between cholesterol and heart disease.

As exciting as the work was, it was the rejection of their manuscript by The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that proved to be the next turning point for Vaughan.  

One of the reviewers had commented that Vaughan’s analysis was incorrect. “I didn’t understand at that point, why the analysis was incorrect,” said Vaughan. “It created a personal mission in my head to try to make this right.”

So he buried himself in books and combed through the latest literature, which soon led him to find the missing piece to the puzzle. With the correct analysis in place, their paper was accepted for publication in NEJM.

And in the process, he found his calling.

“It was clear to me that I needed to know a lot more about the underlying premises and assumptions of data and analytic methods, before I could really understand why they were telling me it was wrong,” he said. “There’s so much that I don’t know.”

Instead of staying away from the unknown, Vaughan plunged headfirst into the world of data and numbers—pivoting from pre-med studies to enrol in a master's degree programme in mathematical statistics.

“Once I started on the coursework, it was pretty clear that this was very exciting—and there was always something around the next corner to explore or understand,” he said.

Almost like a detective working round the clock on a case, Vaughan left no stone unturned.

“What does this data tell us, and what do we need to do next to further the conversation and figure things out? I was very curious to understand the nuances and sophistication and elegance of what data can tell you,” added Vaughan, who becomes animated when he’s talking about statistics.

Continuing his love of statistics, he pursued a doctoral degree in biostatistics, which enabled him to delve deeper into mathematics while remaining in the field of medical research and science by continuing to work as a research assistant in Wynder’s lab.

Having published in several top-tiered journals at the time, Vaughan is humble when asked about his role.

“It’s all about team science—so my role is no better or more important than the clinician or the nurse enrolling the patients, or the phlebotomist taking the blood. We’re all part of the team.”

Roger Vaughan


Constructing a functional and lasting career

Vaughan stayed at the American Health Foundation for another four years before accepting an offer that catapulted him into another world of numbers—not in the form of research data—but in excel spreadsheets documenting the dollars and cents required to run a medical centre.

As Chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Vice-Dean at the Columbia Medical Centre, Vaughan managed the Centre’s budgets, along with 500 faculty members and a student population of more than 2,000. Drawing on his experience as both a builder and a statistician, Vaughan set to improve the running of the Centre.

“He was very much a hands-on leader. He simplified a lot of things and reorganised the department functions and operations quite efficiently after he became our department chair,” recalled then Assistant Professor at Columbia Medical Centre Bibhas Chakraborty, who first met Vaughan in 2009 at Columbia.

But Vaughan did not just focus on the operations of the Centre.  

“He was a very friendly person who used to walk around the corridors quite frequently, talking to faculty and students to understand the issues they faced,” added Bibhas.

So when he had to speak to Vaughan about leaving Columbia to be closer to family, it was not a difficult conversation.

Instead of accepting Bibhas’ resignation, Vaughan suggested keeping his position on an extended leave of absence, giving him the option of returning if things did not pan out. “That was very kind and generous of him,” recalled Bibhas.

But that wasn’t the last the two men saw of each other—in fact, their paths would cross again, many years later in Singapore—where Bibhas was headed at the time.  

While spending a lot of time on budgets and the intricacies that came with running a medical centre taught Vaughan a lot about administration and leadership, the scientist in him felt left out.

“I became removed from research and knowledge creation,” reflected Vaughan. “It just wasn’t what I went into science for.”

So when an opportunity at The Rockefeller University came knocking, Vaughan took up the position as Director of Biostatistics, immersing himself in basic science and research—the complete opposite of what he had been doing at Columbia University for the past 20 years.

“It really allowed me to get deep into the biology and the science, but what I kind of missed was the ability to grow programmes,” said Vaughan. “I missed that role of being able to build things.”

By then, he had published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles about biostatistical methods and the application of statistical methods in medicine and public health.

Topping out to take in new views

For Vaughan, the chance to build came again after he decided to move when his wife was offered an outstanding position in Singapore.

One of the first things he did after arriving was to reach out to Bibhas, who happened to be on the hunt for a new director for the Centre for Quantitative Medicine (CQM) at Duke-NUS, which was being overseen by acting director Associate Professor Tan Say Beng since Bibhas relinquished the position in 2018.  

“This was a golden opportunity for Roger—so I told him, this job is almost tailor-made for you, if you want to come to Singapore,” recalled Bibhas, now an associate professor with CQM and Duke-NUS’ Health Services and Systems Research Programme.

Vaughan added: “So I applied for the position, interviewed and was hired; I felt so lucky and fortunate.”

And he still remembers the day he left New York City for Singapore—which coincided with the date of the US Capitol riot—6 January 2021.

“I was getting on a plane out of JFK at that time. So I thought it’s a good omen that I’m leaving when they’re trying to overthrow the government.

“After I was here a while, Dean Coffman and Prof Pat asked if I would consider taking on a few other roles”, said Vaughan, who then took on the additional roles of Associate Dean and Director for the Centre for Clinician-Scientist Development (CCSD).

Unfrazzled by wearing multiple hats, Vaughan sees his three roles as “a perfect balance of science, institutional levers and leadership”.

Almost immediately, he started work on blueprints for CQM and CCSD first by studying the “raw ingredients”. He had a team of talented junior faculty, facilities and grants. How he could make use of all that to build something that was “‘beautiful, lasting and functional’, as my wife calls it”, said Vaughan, “and I follow her motto that the goal is to build and put structures in place and empower faculty and staff that make me—obsolete”!

Vaughan (top row, second from right) celebrating the achievements of CCSD mentees at the Transition Awards and Clinician Scientist Awards 2021

To find the best way forward, he reached out to stakeholders in the School and across the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC) to understand how things worked before he started adding bricks.

“It’s been a year and a half of just simmering in the culture and becoming assimilated to who I need to know and who do I need to get in touch with, rather than just thinking, ‘I know what the answer is’”, explained Vaughan.

Another opportunity that he relished was being able to teach and mentor students again. “I couldn’t be happier here at Duke-NUS. I get to work with talented faculty and staff under outstanding leadership of Dean and Prof Pat,” he added.

His passion for mentoring did not go unnoticed by Assistant Manager Bernice Chio who manages Vaughan’s schedule and assists with all aspects of Vaughan’s leadership.

“He would organise separate meetings to meet the PhD students one-on-one via Zoom when he was unable to attend their thesis advisory committee meetings, just to provide feedback,” said Chio, who noticed how students opened up to Vaughan, whose affable nature makes him naturally approachable.

“I think it helps that he’s easy-going and approachable. He also injects a bit of humour during our department meetings to put everyone at ease,” commented Chio.

Teaching in the MD programme as well as the Master in International Translational Medicine programme when he first arrived also inspired Vaughan to help improve the research curriculum of the MD programme’s third year.

“If this is not the best, and we want it to be the best, then what is the best?” said Vaughan, who spent a year in focus group discussions with Associate Dean for Medical Education Professor Scott Compton and a group of students to revamp the curriculum. Their efforts culminated in the implementation of a 12-month research curriculum that was rolled out in June.

“With his knowledge and experience, Roger has helped revise the research curriculum thread of the MD degree to really focus on laying the foundation for what students need to know in order to become physicians capable of evaluating evidence, and also to prime future clinician-researchers with skills for designing studies,” said Compton, who is also programme director of the Master in International Translational Medicine programme.   

Assessing structural soundness

Reflecting on this past year at Duke-NUS, Vaughan shared: “It was just a year of listening—trying to make sure that the changes are what people needed and wanted—and that takes time listening and letting it gel.”

With the information gleaned from his many conversations, Vaughan has already broken ground with several new initiatives, including offering free AMC-wide seminars around research and statistics, introducing two new tracks for mentoring and supporting budding clinician-scientists, as well as a consulting service for researchers across the AMC at CQM.

And the visionary planner hopes to continue building.

With a keen eye for detail, Vaughan is always on the lookout for areas that need improvement, but it is not a journey he intends to undertake alone.  

“You have to bring people along with your vision—that’s the essence of leadership—getting people to appreciate the bigger picture and the vision and the little steps that are needed along the way.

“Everybody can agree we need a bigger house, ‘bigger’ across many dimensions, but how do we get there? That’s my job—to get us to the ‘bigger’ house, and getting people to trust that I’m going to get us there, we’re going to make some decisions along the way and not everyone’s going to like it, but we all agree that at the end, we need a bigger house, so let’s get there together.”

Workshop (upright)
Vaughan’s happy place, other than in front of a computer or in a classroom // Credit: Roger Vaughan
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