Alumni Profile: Lisa Mellman PSY’91/HON’19

Keeping it All in Perspective

Julia Hickey

Photo Jenny Gorman.

The view from Lisa Mellman’s 11th floor office in the Vagelos Education Center stretches on a clear day over Washington Heights rooftops to the Bronx and East River to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges into Queens, tiny at the horizon. Looking out at this expanse, one notices a framed map of Colorado, Dr. Mellman’s home state, tipped against the window.

“I love maps. I love seeing how things are laid out, and how you get from point A to point B,” says Dr. Mellman.

These are apt words from the senior associate dean for student affairs at VP&S since 2005 and the Samuel Rudin Professor of Psychiatry at CUMC, who, since arriving at Columbia for residency in 1982, has dedicated her life to easing the transitions of students, trainees, and patients from A to B and points beyond.

“It’s no secret amongst VP&S students that the buck stops with Dean Mellman,” says fourth-year medical student Sarah Soo-Hoo, whose mother was suffering from stage 4 lung cancer when she matriculated as a first-year. “I knew I could rely on her as my rock. Medical school can be very stressful, to say the least. But during this time of so much chaos and unpredictability, Dean Mellman made sure that medical school would be the least of my worries.”

The two personalized a schedule that would allow Ms. Soo-Hoo time with family, without giving up on her goal to complete an MBA before graduation in 2021 from the MD/MBA dual-degree program. When her mother died the night before the start of her OB/GYN clinical rotation, Ms. Soo-Hoo contacted Dr. Mellman. She told Ms. Soo-Hoo, “Take all the time you need.”


Always in Motion

Admittedly “always in motion,” by 7 a.m. Dr. Mellman is either swimming laps at her local Y or counseling psychiatric patients at Columbia before beginning her duties in the student affairs office. And though constant movement might prove unsettling to some, velocity has firmed her poise and streamlined her diction. From outlining Columbia’s strengths in the biological and psychodynamic aspects of psychiatry that drew her to residency here to welling up with emotion when describing the 11th grade teacher who urged her to take AP chemistry, launching her resolve to become a doctor, she speaks with a deliberate cadence that is calm and reassuring.

“I think touching the careers of thousands of students and residents really is the most meaningful thing to me. Because I know they have in turn touched so many patients’ lives, have developed new discoveries in research, have just gone on to so many roles in medicine,” says Dr. Mellman. “And the mother in me—they are all like my children—it just touches my heart.”

Lisa Mellman with Christopher Travis’19 at Match Day in March 2019. Photo by Amelia Panico.

Dr. Mellman’s mother, Genevieve, was born and raised in Guatemala to Jewish parents who emigrated from Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. “She was smart. She could have done anything,” Dr. Mellman says of her mother, who died in 2013. “But she didn’t grow up in an era where she had those opportunities.”

Genevieve moved to Denver, Colorado, was married, and had Lisa as her second child by the age of 20. As a youth Dr. Mellman joined her grandparents for summers abroad when they lived in Brazil and Israel. Her mother completed college in her 50s and used her Spanish fluency to launch a career as a court interpreter.

After falling in love with biochemistry during her AP chemistry class in high school, Dr. Mellman attended the University of Colorado. But it was not until her final clerkship while pursuing an MD at Case Western University that she experienced the epiphany that psychiatry was the specialty for her. “Meaning has enormous importance to me, and so does trust,” she says. Psychiatry allowed for deep connections with patients across cultures and life experiences. 

She also met her husband, Torbjoern Nygaard, MD, at Case Western, while he was a resident and she was an intern, both in medicine. 

Always motivated to study Spanish, Dr. Mellman was not surprised to end up in the Latino community of Washington Heights for psychiatry residency at Columbia, where she rose to chief resident. She was asked to co-direct an inpatient unit on the 12th floor of the Neurological Institute, the same floor where she now treats patients. “I have gone full circle,” she says.  

Dr. Mellman soon started psychoanalytic training and gave birth to the first of her two sons before directing the outpatient clinic. In 1993, she was named associate director for the psychiatry residency, pursued scholarly projects, and joined major psychiatry education organizations. She served as president of the American Association of Directors of Psychiatry Residency Training, chair of the fellowship program for the American Psychoanalytic Association, and chair of committees in graduate medical education and in psychotherapy for the American Psychiatric Association. In these roles, she helped establish competencies for training, including in psychotherapy, throughout the country.

“Those were very, very busy years,” she says of her early years at Columbia, but then adds, “I mean, all the years were busy years!”  

She was an advisory dean at VP&S in 2003 before succeeding long-time student affairs dean Linda Lewis as senior associate dean for student affairs. 

Dr. Mellman now oversees all aspects of student life, including student-run clinics, athletics, and the P&S Club, activities that foster the humanism and self-knowledge to become empathetic physicians. She offers daily advising hours to help students chart their career paths and writes, with assistance from her staff, each student’s MSPE, the all-important performance evaluation that is essential to their residency application. 

“It’s the process that I love, not just the outcome,” Dr. Mellman says of her collaborative roles as dean, psychiatrist, and administrator. “The people part is really vital for me, because the changes occur within a relationship.”

Dr. Mellman has taken on new roles as of late, with a silent cameo in three Bard Hall Players productions (her personal favorite was as a terrified patient in the dentist’s waiting room in “Little Shop of Horrors”) and, not least, as an honorary member of the VP&S Alumni Association. 

“To be honored by the institution in which I have developed my entire career, and to be honored in this way, so surpasses any expectations I ever had in my life,” she says. “When I came here to interview as a resident, I wanted to be like those faculty members that I admired so much, and it blows my mind to be one of them.”

After nearly four decades of big-picture thinking at Columbia, Dr. Mellman manages to find time to tend to her own well-being with her family and friends, weekly dates with her grandchildren, and golfing.  

“The depth of focus that’s required in golf I find enormously relaxing,” she says. “As a life-long learner, I love the challenge of the game and being in the zone. When I am playing or when I’m at the driving range, everything else just fades away.”