Had someone told Shelley Berkley three months ago she'd be Touro University's new CEO and Senior Provost she said she would have "told them they are out of their minds." 

But that's exactly the position the former seven-term Nevada Democratic congresswoman is in. She said Tuesday during an interview on the Mare Island campus that she couldn't be more eager to immerse herself in the world of higher education. 

"When I was first approached about this job I was surprised, to say the least. But, the more I thought about it the more excited I got. It's the perfect marriage," Berkley said. 

Throughout her long political career, Berkley, 63, said her main passions have been education and health care. She said higher education's opportunities at Touro are the perfect arenas for her to put her skills to use. 

Besides overseeing the Vallejo and Nevada Touro campuses, Berkley said she intends to become their greatest advocate. She began her new post in mid-January. 

"I want to raise the public profile of the school and I believe I have the personality to do that," Berkley said with a smile. 

Hired in December, Berkley kicked off her first day last month with an address to students and faculty. She plans to work two days a week on the Mare Island campus, three days at the Touro Nevada campus, and also intends to spend alternating weekends between the two states. 

In her brief time in Vallejo, she said she has been meeting with key community leaders, and putting down some roots. For instance, in their first day of apartment hunting in Vallejo, Berkley and her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, decided to buy a condominium in North Vallejo rather than rent. She explained that she felt it was important to show she wants to become part of the local community by making an investment in the city. 

She brings strong ties to the medical field and to Touro. Besides her husband's medical practice, Berkley's daughter is also a physician and she is close friends with departing Touro CEO and Senior Provost Michael Harter whom she met while serving on the Nevada State System of Higher Education's Board of Regents. 

After spending some time at Touro's Nevada school, she said she "fell in love with the campus" and already feels similarly about the Mare Island campus and surrounding city. 

"I love Vallejo. I've met with a number of community leaders here and I'm impressed with their forward-thinking and attitude. They want to do more for Vallejo and realize the importance of the school and want to include Touro in that vision," she said. 

"We have a significant economic impact in this area and I want it to grow," she said. "Part of my job will be to assure Touro becomes a household name." 

One way she plans to do that is draw attention to the critical physician shortage which, she said, will worsen under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obama care. 

Ticking off numbers, she said Touro has received 4,854 applicants to its physician program, but has just 135 slots open. At the heart of the issue, she said, is a lack of residency positions to give medical students mandatory hands-on training. Before taking in students, schools must be able to assure them they will have a residency to go to for further training. 

Berkley said she intends to work with the California Legislature and local hospitals to develop ways to open up more residency programs. That would, in turn, free up more spaces for medical students at the Touro campuses. 

Filling the doctor shortage demand might also lead to a physical expansion of the Mare Island campus, something she would like to examine, she said. 

Berkley said she is also excited about the prospects of Touro University's various disciplines, including physician assistants program, training for careers in pharmacy, public health and education. In addition, she cited numerous research activities on the Mare Island campus, including work on diabetes, HIV and obesity, adding some of these programs have garnered substantial grants. 

Berkley was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998. and represented Nevada's first Congressional District from 1999 to 2013. She lost a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2012. 

She also served as a member of the Nevada State System of Higher Education's Board of Regents for eight years and previously served in the Nevada Legislature. A 50-year resident of southern Nevada, Berkley was the first person in her family to attend college. 

Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at srohrs@timesheraldonline.com or (707) 553-6832. Follow her on Twitter @SarahVTH.