Bold Ambition: A Cancer Institute for Nevada
Interview by Jeanne Johnson
Heather Murren '88
|PHOTO BY JOE RUBINO
Heather Murren '88 left behind a career as a Wall Street analyst for an ambitious project in the Nevada desert. Two years ago, she signed on as president and CEO of the Nevada Cancer Institute, which is scheduled to open its flagship building in Las Vegas this spring. The institute will provide a leading-edge educational, research, treatment, and support facility for cancer patients and their families throughout the state.
Murren, whose husband, Jim Murren, is president and chief financial officer of MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, has devoted much of her last two years to recruiting top physicians and scientists and to learning the ins and outs of raising both financial and political capital. An active alumna, she is a member of the Krieger School Advisory Council and serves on its development/campaign fundraising committee.
Writer Jeanne Johnson spoke with Murren recently about what inspires her and how she gets it all done.
Where did the idea to create the cancer institute originate?
About two and a half years ago, a group of community leaders got together and talked about the needs of the state of Nevada and what's available. Many of us had come to the Las Vegas area from elsewhere and share personal experiences with cancer. In my case, for example, I have a strong family history of cancer. But what we found was eye-opening because really, there were very few research-linked resources available for cancer patients.
So we saw a need and decided to translate our concern into action.
Why in Nevada?
Nevada has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation. Our survival rates are below the national average. We'd like to change those numbers. Yet the state had no comprehensive cancer research center, and 25 percent of cancer patients leave the state to be treated elsewhere. Not everyone can afford to do that.
Besides, Nevada has been the fastest-growing state in the United States for 20 years in a row now. We're very good at entertainment and hospitality, but we need to have different facets and become seriously competitive in other areas, including cancer care. This cancer institute is something this growing area needs and it will give us something to be proud of.
What is your vision for the institute?
We aspire to be a Center of Excellence as defined by the National Cancer Institute, fighting cancer through research, education, and research-linked patient care. And we want to be staffed by the finest scientists, clinicians, and caregivers. Some of the best cancer researchers in the nation have moved here to become a part of this.
How were you able to attract such high-powered doctors and researchers?
Many people reach the pinnacles of their careers, examine their lives, and want to know how they can do something truly meaningful. How can they really effect change? This institute presents a unique opportunity to do something from scratch that will really make a difference. And it's in an environment that is focused solely on one goal without a large, entrenched bureaucracy. To some people, that's very appealing. Some faculty members appreciate the opportunity to pursue research and expand knowledge in a setting that is conducive to that, in an unencumbered way.
Without a doubt, this will be the most important thing to happen in the state for years to come.
Were you attracted by the opportunity to serve a higher cause?
Yes, and it was helpful to have my Wall Street background. I was an adviser to major multi-national corporations, and I would take companies public, so I had experience in the financial realm and I had the discipline to know how a business should be run. But this is more than just another business, so I spend about 20 percent of my time learning something new.
And what have you learned?
I learned that the ability to achieve something great is higher when people come together, because a group can achieve more than a collection of isolated individuals. It's been very humbling to be a part of a whole community coming together. And I've learned that the human spirit can be extraordinarily generous and compassionate.
For more than two years now, you've been completely immersed in this visionary project. What advice would you give to anyone else who was contemplating a similar project or the pursuit of a major goal?
It can take just as much time to do something small as it does to do something big, so go for it. Boldness of ambition is a positive thing.