Hail to the Chief: Dr. James Dunn

Pacific Association of Pediatric Surgeons

April 6, 2022

This article is part of a series of interviews with Stanford Surgery faculty who were, are, or will be presidents of surgical societies.Dr. James Dunn is Chief of the Division of Pediatric Surgery and will be sworn in as the President of the Pacific Association of Pediatric Surgeons in September at their annual meeting.

Rachel Baker: Why this society?

Dr. James Dunn: First, it’s different in the sense that it’s not country-based – most societies only have members from one country. Fewer go across international boundaries. PAPS has members from any country that borders the Pacific Ocean. You get to go to all these fun places you might not otherwise get to go to. My first meeting was in China, it was my first time in Beijing! It’s also one of the oldest pediatric surgical society that most people know about. There might be a more obscure one, but the American equivalent, APSA, formed about 5 years after PAPS.

I was a surgery resident when I first attended a PAPS meeting. One of my mentors [Dr.] Eric Fonkalsrud, a pediatric surgeon at UCLA, was one of the founding members of this society. He went through all the different leadership roles and continued to be involved. I went to present some of my research that I did during my PD years. Right away I noticed a significant difference: the people there are much more open and collegial and less stiff. One of the rules is that no ties are to be worn. If you are caught wearing one, someone will come and cut it off! There’s also Songfest. While other societies might have professional musicians, at PAPS every country goes up and does a song onstage during the banquet. The United States has a large contingency. Some countries only have one representative and then they have to do a solo. At the end, everyone will join in and sing “It’s a small world”

I’ve been trying to go almost every year since. I’ve developed friendships with people around the world through PAPS, and it’s a great opportunity to see them.


RB: How did you become president of this society?

JD: How one becomes president has changed over the years. It used to be that you had to be willing to host the meeting. Unlike the American College of Surgeons that has a big committee that plans the meeting and a company that runs the meeting for you, PAPS is much looser and it takes lots of volunteers to plan, especially in the host country.

Today, there is a second way which is how I was elected. I got to be where I am because I’ve contributed to the society’s function for 20 years. After I became faculty, I was on the publications committee, scientific program chair, and I was secretary for the organization.


RB: What do you hope to accomplish during your term?

JD: The main agenda of PAPS is to reach out to the LMICs in the pacific area to make pediatric surgery knowledge more available, to facilitate the exchange of information, and bring about those improvements. That’s been our goal every year, since the organization’s inception.

For me personally, there’s not an overwhelming agenda that I want to push for. I think what the organization wants to do is still the most important thing. But one of the pieces that has been missing is engagement from South America. For whatever reason, membership has been low in that part of the world, and so I’m excited that we’re holding the next meeting in Quito, Ecuador. South America is a big piece of that pacific rim, so improving their participation is something I would certainly like to see happen.


RB: What strategies do you employ to manage your time?

JD: It’s really not different now than from what I’ve always done: be organized and prioritize. If you add a piece, another piece tends to fall away so it needs to be a balance. I’ve always enjoyed doing many things. You can call it juggling, but that gives the impression that everything is up in the air while in truth you want it to be much more orchestrated, a steady, continuous effort, not everything crashing down together. There are some people I look at and I think “wow they are juggling a lot of things, they are figuring out a way to do things in an orderly fashion.”


RB: What advice do you have for someone who aspires to take on a leadership role in a surgical society?

JD: Some of it is a matter of time. It’s an acknowledgement of all the things you have done.  To become division chief has never been something I’ve been planned, it’s just something that’s happened. I strive to always provide the best patient care and bring about new knowledge. If you use that as your overall goal, all the other things seem to happen along the way.

My usual spiel is the 5 ps. This should resonate with the surgeons as there’s this thing about Ps in ostomies (pink, patent, productive) but my 5ps are for the academic surgery track:

Prepared – This is what the residents are doing. They’re learning, gaining knowledge, and building a strong base.

Passion for the work you are going to go into. Preparation isn’t easy. If you don’t have the passion, everything is going to fall apart.

Perspiration – This is hard work! Like Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Persistent – Even if you do all those things, there will still be failures, so you have to keep at it. Write grants even knowing that most of them will get rejected.

Partnership/ People – You can’t do it alone! The days of the person hiding in the corner of the lab and making a shocking discovery are over. You need to collaborate.

Dr. Dunn at the 2011 PAPS meeting in Cancun

Dr. Dunn at the 2014 PAPS meeting in Banff with students and residents.