Bassel Choucair, associate vice president of IT user experience and support at UTHealth Houston, recently celebrated a significant milestone: 30 years with the university. It has been his first and only place of employment after graduating from Boston University with a degree in biomedical engineering.
It all started with computers, chicken research, and a duck. One of Choucair’s professors at Boston University knew Lincoln Gray, PhD, then a faculty member of the Department of Otolaryngology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. Choucair was encouraged to talk to Gray about helping in his lab.
So in 1992, Choucair, an international student from Lebanon, borrowed a suit from his uncle and landed his first position at UTHealth Houston without even officially applying.
“I was hired as a network support specialist in Dr. Gray’s lab,” Choucair said. “But my job went way beyond that description. I managed various assignments — some having to do with computers and some having to do with conducting research experiments on chickens.”
He vividly remembers the one day when a duck egg made its way into the lab. When it hatched, the duck quickly made an impression on Choucair and began following him around campus. Eventually, Choucair decided to bring the duck home, releasing it into the pond at his house.
“Among all the memories I have during my time with UTHealth Houston, that one might be my fondest,” he said.
In addition to helping with research on chickens, Choucair provided IT support to the department. Two years later, he became a local area network (LAN) manager and was asked to set up email for the department. It was pre-internet, and no network existed. Although he was familiar with some of the concepts thanks to his biomedical engineering degree, he had to learn how to run network cables and server operating systems like UNIX.
He must have done something right, because later that year, he was invited to be the LAN manager for the dean’s office at the medical school.
As Choucair continued his journey at UTHealth Houston, his path would intersect with that of a dental student named Rubina.
“There was a nurse at student health who was interested in matchmaking, and she thought Rubina and I would make the perfect pair,” Choucair recalled. “She was right.”
Rubina was a student at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry and the secretary of the Muslim Health Professional Society (MHPS). Choucair met her at an MHPS event, and the rest was history. The pair later served as president and secretary of the MHPS, and have always made serving the community a common goal in their marriage.
Today, the couple has four children who were all born at Memorial Hermann. Margaret McNeese, MD, professor and Isabel S. and Ransom C. Lummis Family Professor in Pediatrics at McGovern Medical School, was and is still their doctor. “I have UTHealth Houston to thank for my career and my family as well,” he said.
“Bassel has been one of the most accessible, knowledgeable, and invaluable people in the medical school,” said McNeese, who also serves as vice dean of admissions and student affairs for the school. “I have been fortunate to have been a colleague of his since his very first days. His ability to assist anyone and attend to our students’ needs is without parallel. He is one of the most valuable assets to our McGovern Medical School team, and I am honored to call him a friend.”
Choucair was busy concentrating on his career and growing family when Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston in 2001, dumping 40 inches of rain in the Bayou City, and devastating the Texas Medical Center, including McGovern Medical School. The historic weather event was a pivotal moment in Choucair’s career.
“The entire data center on the ground floor flooded, and I became somewhat of a nomad, moving from one office to another for the next several years,” Choucair said.
The catastrophic storm impacted the entire Houston economy, including the medical school. Choucair, however, found opportunity among the chaotic time. Soon after the storm, he was asked to undertake a huge project — to centralize IT at the medical school. Until then, all of the departments were working independently. Choucair put together a proposal to consolidate IT at the school, saving money for the university while, at the same time, providing better service. The massive project took five years to complete.
The centralization of IT at the medical school proved to be successful, which would later lead to Choucair doing the same for UT Physicians and Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston.
Out of all his many accomplishments throughout his 30 years at UTHealth Houston, Choucair is especially proud of establishing the medical school IT department as a model for the rest.
“We have always strived to be user-centric and provide the best possible user experience to ensure the medical school IT infrastructure seamlessly integrates with our clinics and our hospital partners,” he said.
In 2019, Choucair was promoted to his current position, and he now oversees a team of 85 people. Throughout his tenure, he has largely kept his team intact and his employees have longevity with the university, just as he does.
Choucair started managing one person in 1997, and now has seven distinct teams. Most of his managers have been with him a very long time, with seven of them here for more than 10 years.
“The loyalty of Bassel’s employees is a testament to his outstanding leadership ability and the keen interest he takes in each of his team members,” said Amar Yousif, vice president and chief information officer. “We are fortunate to have someone of his knowledge and deep experience, who has seen so much of the growth of this institution, remain with us for so long.”
When he is asked what made him stay all of these years, he gives many reasons. “But if you boil it down, it is the people. I have hired 180 IT professionals over the years. I consider them my brothers and sisters. I have also been blessed with awesome bosses and mentors over the years, including Dr. Colasurdo and Amar Yousif today. They have all contributed to my success, and I’m grateful to each and every one of them,” Choucair said.
Another trusted and esteemed colleague of Choucair’s is Nancy McNiel, PhD, senior associate dean for administrative affairs at McGovern Medical School. The two have been working together since 2004.
“Bassel demonstrates the type of leadership that makes our university great. His analytical, organizational, and hiring skills are unsurpassed and he readily takes on new areas of innovation and responsibility,” McNiel said. “He has developed our Medical School IT organization from the ground up and has expanded his role to university-wide efforts — both with great success — and he genuinely cares about each of his employees.”
When asked what advice he would give others looking to forge a similar career path as he did, Choucair had a ready answer. “Be open-minded, take notes, ask a lot of questions, be courageous, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to embrace new things."