Dr. Anette Wu Alumni Profile

Dr. Anette Wu Alumni Profile 

By: Suzanne Kirkendall, MPH ’18 

About Anette: Anette Wu, MD MPH PhD, is an associate professor in the Departments of Medicine and Pathology and Cell Biology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and is a member of the teaching faculty in the Clinical Gross Anatomy course. She teaches and mentors medical and dental students. 



Dr. Wu was trained in Transplantation and General Surgery in Hannover, Germany and at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. She obtained her postdoctoral training in Transplantation Immunology at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University and holds an additional degree in public health from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. 

Her current research interest is in educational research in internationalization of medical education. She is the founding director of the International Collaboration and Exchange Program at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, a program that is anchored in the Anatomy course (in the Pathology Department) and serves to prepare future global healthcare leaders via early international student networking and basic sciences research internships abroad.  

Source: https://www.pathology.columbia.edu/profile/anette-wu-fortgang-md 


Dr. Anette Wu is a 2023 winner of the Columbia University Alumni Medal. In this interview, you will learn about Anette’s path to this distinguished recognition and her work as the director of the International Collaboration and Exchange Program (ICEP). 


Anette, please tell us about the journey you’ve taken to arrive at the work that you are doing now. 
I was born and raised in Germany. My parents are originally from Taiwan but went to Germany when they were very young. They grew up as Japanese because at that time Taiwan was Japanese and became Chinese before they left. I say all this because it meant that I was always very interested in global aspects of culture.  

During medical school, I studied one year at the Mayo Clinic and I became very interested in the teaching approach here. Compared to Germany, it was much more practical and hands-on. 

When I was working in Surgery back in Germany, I was very interested in science – I have a PhD in transplantation physiology and I wanted to do more research in that area. The research I was interested in was xenotransplantation, which is organ transplantation from one species to another, like organ transplantation from pigs to primates. In Germany, that was very limited at that time, so I obtained a research fellowship from the German government and went to Harvard Medical School in Boston to conduct a research fellowship on xenotransplantation with a very prominent research group in that area.  

For both personal and professional factors, I ultimately decided to stay in the United States, so I matched into a surgical residency program at Harvard’s Mass General Hospital. In many programs, residents take time for research but I had already had a long research career. I was very interested in public health and health policy because the health system was so different in the United States compared to Germany, so I wanted to learn more about that and about leadership. I applied to a handful of public health schools, and New York City was most fascinating to me. I really love Washington Heights where our school is located – there are so many different cultures from around the world coming together in such a small footprint.  

At Columbia Mailman, I was a full-time student, took a lot of classes in both the regular MPH and the executive program and at the business school. I experienced a good mix of students, and I felt really at home. It was my second degree, so I was older, and so fit in with the executive students. But everything was also really new to me, so I loved being with the younger students who were directly out of college. I really had the best time of my life! 

It was such a great experience; I made many friends and I learned so much. I got very interested in the global aspect of medicine and the internationalization of medical education. That really ties into my career change. Because I’m German, I had to update my visa to enter my job again under a certain visa category.  I thought I would start teaching in the meantime. I began teaching anatomy and took on an academic administrative role at Columbia. Subsequently, Columbia took me on as full-time faculty. A few years went by, and I never went back to clinical practice and really loved teaching! 

When I was teaching anatomy, I saw that anatomists had this incredible position in medical education and they weren’t really aware of it. They teach every single medical student around the world—there’s not a single medical student that can pass medical school without going through the hands of an anatomist. The other thing is that anatomists teach medical students very early. I always tell my colleagues: “We teach them early and we teach them all.” It’s an incredible opportunity to convey areas of medicine to students that wouldn’t otherwise reach them. Anatomists are also very involved in education: about 90% of us teach. We’re also very interested in science, so we are a perfect combination for student education in healthcare. I brought a bit of the public health and global health perspective to teaching by telling students about how medical school and health systems are different in other countries and they were really interested in that. 


Can you tell us about your program, the International Collaboration and Exchange Program (ICEP)?  

A few years after leaving surgery I decided to set up an internal collaboration program, not as part of my job but in my spare time. This was a bit ahead of its time 10 years ago, though now after COVID, people see the importance of its mission. This area is now very popular. The mission is to teach our students how to be part of the global medical community, not just Columbia Medical School, or Yale, or Munich, or Sydney, or London. They’re all part of a very large global network of health professions. The idea is that when something happens, like COVID or any major global health challenge arises, they can reach out to their friends that they made in medical school to solve healthcare problems. 

I did it by partnering with other leading medical schools. We now have 26 medical schools around the world on five continents. We mostly partner with very large medical schools. We’re based in anatomy, but we really go beyond that into public and global health. We have 400-500 hand-selected students each year. These are students who have stood out in their anatomy programs and their anatomy professors have selected them for special leadership skills. 

We put the students into groups of five or six. Every two to three weeks we give them a new topic to discuss to learn from and with each other. It’s a long course that goes over two semesters. Every three weeks, they get a faculty lecture from one of the leading professors around the world on a topic that’s of interest to them. For example, Dean Linda Fried gave a lecture on aging. We’ve also had the dean of the Yale School of Public Health speaking with them, and we even had the former Vice President, and now the Prime Minister, of Taiwan speaking about how they managed COVID. Then, towards the end of the program we have student debates and host an international student conference. We were on Zoom way before it became popular! 

Students who want to can also go abroad and spend two months in another university doing a research internship. During that time, we ask them to meet with the friends they have met online. They also meet a lot of the other visiting students. 

We keep expanding the program. It was originally a pre-clinical program, but now we have a clinical elective on nutrition and culture. We also do post-grad exchange now and included more health professions.  


What made you decide to start ICEP? 

The inspiration for starting this program came from my public health schooling, my personal multicultural upbringing, and also the vision that I really wanted the students to have of a global community feeling. If something like COVID happens again, they can call up their friends around the world. I always tell them, “These are your global classmates, and they will be your colleagues, so don’t be shy about talking to them.” 

Public health opens your eyes and makes you think about medicine more globally than what you can do as a surgeon. The teaching aspect was also very important to me. 

All of these elements came together in this program: the teaching, the global health portion, and also trying to bring the best of each world together. Our students learn how countries are run with national health systems. In countries with fewer resources, they learn how to make the best of what they have at home. I always tell students when they go abroad to make sure they bring something worthwhile back with them. We are trying to raise awareness to cultural competency, empathy, and appreciation both of what others have and what they have at home.  

It has taken a lot of time. This is our 10th year now. We built it slowly by starting with a handful of partners and kept expanding. The curriculum has also gotten longer—the first year it was only one semester, now it’s two semesters because students want more time, more professors to speak, more content to cover. 

At the beginning, I was thinking more about climate and health, healthcare systems, and health equity but now include the areas of social sciences to make it more diverse. I came from a country that had a national healthcare system, I thought it would be nice for students to see how it’s done in other countries and maybe that would help them implement it here. They will be the next generation to do that. 
What does it take to run this program?  

A lot of time! I get up early—at 3 AM—some people think I live in Europe! I have another job at Columbia doing a lot of administrative work so I can’t fit it into my regular day. Getting up so early works out well because I can speak with people in Europe and Asia. 


What news can you share about ICEP right now? 

Frustratingly, we are not funded, particularly to support students to go abroad. Most students are willing to self-fund, but not everyone has the means even if they want to. This is currently my biggest stressor: I can’t offer the program to students who don’t have the financial background to go abroad. I’m looking for support from foundations and from private donors but it’s hard because we don’t have a specific cause. For example, it would be easier if we could say we’re raising money to cure AIDS in children. But we’re trying to teach students to collaborate, and donors often say the school should pay for it because it’s part of their education. Unfortunately, there’s no money because budgets changed during COVID. I don’t want to end up in a position where I can only support students who have money, that’s very inequitable. The program itself is free for students though, so that’s a start.  

This year, we have offerings from the Bavarian Ministry of Health in Germany to do internships with refugees and climate change there. I think it will be interesting for our students to learn how health systems run in other countries. I think it’s applicable to us right now too because they have a lot the same issues, like asylum seekers in Germany from Ukraine, or homelessness. I think it’s worthwhile for students to see how other countries handle this, so we really want to find support for students to go abroad.  

We’re 26 schools and have a faculty group of about 55 professors around the world. We do a lot of research together, not just for the program but also looking at where students are in terms of cultural competence, empathy, and professionalism around the world. We go to meetings and present our data there, so it’s a lot of scholarly work with my collaborators.  


What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a program like this, or join your program? 

Joining is easier. This program is currently by invitation only. There’s a vetting process done by our advisory board of five board members. There is a long list of characteristics the school must have: it must be a safe area with no war or national disaster so students can safely visit. There needs to be quality research opportunities. We need a certain percentage of English-speaking students. They need to be in a cosmopolitan, metropolitan area, and not too rural because otherwise it’s too hard for students to get there to visit. We partner only with the leading medical schools because we want to avoid students ranking themselves—they need to see each other at the same level or collaboration doesn’t work. We spend hours vetting a school. Then, we usually pilot with them first to make sure they get what they want out of it, and we do too. 

I do really think it makes more sense for everyone to join a larger program rather than replicating it and spreading your resources thin. Setting something up from scratch is not easy and it takes time and a lot of your resources. It took 10 years to get where we are. You need to have the buy-in of your superiors, which is sometimes difficult. But if you do what I did, from the bottom up, while it seems harder at first because you have to convince people to be interested first, long-term it may be more sustainable. After COVID, it’s been harder to get support in general because a lot of resources went inwards in each country and some countries are not so interested in internationalization at the moment, surprisingly.  

The mission of global collaboration must be based on “the liberal model of internationalization of medical education (1).” It’s based on science diplomacy. We take advantage of the ambassadorial role of medical students for mutual understanding around the world and for peace. These students will all be leaders one day. Therefore, the partners who join this program need to have the same vision for collaboration and science diplomacy. We don’t want “the market model,” where everyone is trying to compete to see who is the best. We want everyone to help each other. 

I think it’s a mission every country should have, especially after COVID. We can learn from countries that did it better with so many fewer people dying, and how to share resources like vaccines. There’s a lot of need for global collaboration but we have to push it to have students get a mindset while young.  


Why is international collaboration in medicine important? 

We saw it during COVID—what happens when there is little international collaboration or a general understanding of a global medical/healthcare community. Only when minds come together will medicine and science improve. I personally think you should start as early as you can. If you don’t, it will always be a transactional collaboration, whereas when you put students together when they’re 17 or 18 years old, they don’t feel it’s someone from another country, it’s just their friends they grew up with and they just want to help each other out. The argument for this program is that it’s for young students and that’s the time to do it. I don’t think anyone will argue against more international collaboration, but the reason we need to do it so early is to form the mindset of a global medical community when the students are young so it’s second nature eventually, and they do not feel that their peers are from another world.  


What is your hope for the future of this program? 

I really think it could be a one-stop global collaboration program. Right now, it starts with pre-med college students. Then, we have a pre-clinical portion, then a clinical work portion. Now I’m setting up a portion for post-graduate students who have MDs and PhDs so they can go to other countries and do more research and networking.   

The hope is that every time a partner joins, they bring their own network and we can keep exponentially growing so people can tap into this global network. Eventually, we would have to be funded under a larger entity once it gets that big. 

There’s a lot of potential to make it a really big program, especially if everyone has the same mission. We really want the best for our students so they can do the best they can to improve health together for everyone in the world. I keep telling students to think about the whole world, not just your own country. You all have to work together because this is your world, you’re in it. 


How did your time at Columbia Mailman influence your career? 

A lot! I was so fascinated by the diversity of the student body. Not just ethnic diversity, but also the age range, backgrounds, and life phase/experience. I saw my younger self in younger students, and the older students were somewhere I wanted to be. 

The professors were all very inspiring and different in their own way, even professors who were seemingly unrelated to what I wanted to learn. For example, through the core curriculum, I learned about environmental health sciences, which was so eye-opening and changed my daily behavior in many ways. 

The entire faculty at Columbia Mailman is so incredibly visionary. These are people who know this is their path and they have so much passion for what they do. You don’t find that often in life.  

Congratulations on being a recipient of the Columbia University Alumni Medal recently! For someone so accomplished and so incredibly busy, what makes you want to invest your time and expertise in engaging with the alumni community?  

Thank you! Well, when I was in school, the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) was still at its beginning. I went to a few events they were hosting but didn’t quite understand the concept of the CAA. Then, when I joined the Columbia Mailman Alumni Board about 10 years ago, I realized what incredible work they do, and what we can do to contribute to the alumni community, which I didn’t think so much about when I was a student.  

Once I joined the Board, I started volunteering a lot and it was very fun! It gives me so much satisfaction to give back because I had so much fun in my public health studies. I met so many interesting people and I thought it was great that I could help other students and alumni have the same experience. I have met so many friends through the program. 

At first, I was volunteering as chair of the Columbia Mailman Special Events Committee, which was a great experience and a wonderful way to meet lots of students and to bring alumni and students together. Sometimes, I would even travel to Boston to meet accepted students and try to help them decide to come to Columbia Mailman. I think that it’s most helpful to hear from someone who has had the same experience of trying to choose which program to go to. Later, I became the vice president of the Columbia Mailman Alumni Board and two years later, I was elected as the president.  

I was also elected to join the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) Board of Directors. I first became chair of the CAA Programs Committee, and later was invited to a number of other committees (i.e., STEM or Alumni Leaders Weekend, now CALE). I met a lot of interesting people, and it was very rewarding. It’s fun to meet new people, talk to students, give back our time to them and see another part of Columbia. When we go to school in Washington Heights, we never meet people on the Morningside campus, so through the CAA, I met lots of people from the other campuses and in all different life stages. 

So, number one, it was about giving back. And number two, for my own growth it was so much fun to keep meeting and learning from other people, creating new communities, and bringing people together. I think that’s why I was recognized with the Columbia Alumni Medal. 


Why is it important to engage with the alumni community? 

First of all, it’s important for the community so we all feel like we’re part of it. We can play a role in the continuation of the spirit of Columbia and do good by people, which we like to do in public health.  

Another reason is the intellectual stimulation you get when meeting all these nice, interesting, and like-minded people who you wouldn’t have known otherwise. You’ll never meet so many people on the same wavelength and who also inspire you as you will through the alumni community.  

The reason to form this community and be part of this Columbia Mailman family for me was also because I am a person who likes tradition. For me, it was a driver to carry on what we learned at Columbia Mailman and continue giving it to others. Hopefully, the next generation can continue that forward. 


What accomplishments are you most proud of? 

One accomplishment that I am very proud of is to have done residency in surgery when few women did it. It was a different time back then and surgery was still regarded as a predominantly male profession. But it was important that some of us went this path to pave the way for the next generation.  

When I was a student, I won a prestigious fellowship to study at the Mayo Clinic for a year. Many people told me how brave I was to go abroad by myself to a new country and explore.  It was fun and so enriching. I am glad I went and made new friends all over the world! 

Also, I won an important research award when I was a post-doc.  

On a personal level, I’m proud that I met my husband and married him! 


What advice would you give current Columbia Mailman students starting their own careers? 

There are so many things that I would love to share with them. I get this question often from students, especially when they’re younger and have so many options open to them, and I tell them: follow your heart. Pick something that aligns with your heart at this moment. You can always switch; career is not a life sentence, and you grow with it and change sometimes. Don’t let your brain take over too much. When you do something with your heart, you will eventually succeed without it feeling like too much work. If you do it only by following your brain, it will feel like a chore. You need to have a passion for it—you will never be satisfied if you do things only with your head. Like when I started my program, I knew it was the right thing in my heart even if other people didn’t understand it yet. When you do something new you always run up against people who are a little skeptical, but you just have to show them it’s good. 


1. Wu A, De Wit H. The Liberal Model in Internationalization of Medical Education — an Opportunity to Reduce Healthcare Nationalism. Medical Science Educator. 2022;Med.Sci.Educ. 32,  https://doi.org/10.1007/s40670-022-01623-9: 1235–6 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40670-022-01623-9