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Six questions with the Dean

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As usual, the fall is a hectic time of year at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. The beginning of the new academic year, research grant deadlines, fall Convocation, Homecoming, a series of community engagement events, and a number of new initiatives have kept everyone busy. However, the Deandid take some time to answer a few questions about what has been taking place at the School and what he has in his sights as he moves through his second term.

As you think back through the past calendar year, what have been some of the School’s most important achievements that are advancing progress toward the School’s vision to become a global leader in optimizing life-long health?

So much of our progress and achievements go back to the people who have been hired during the past several years. I knew that achieving our vision would require a strategic investment in people - researchers and educators who are pushing the boundaries of their work.

We have hired young investigators, mid-career scientists and more senior leaders who are already making a difference in their particular fields. They have joined us as professors and Chairs. We simply wouldn’t have a chance to achieve our vision without these individuals. When you get right down to it – it’s all about the people – they are the ones who will ensure we achieve our vision.

What new educational or research projects have been either initiated or advanced at the School in the past year?

On the research front, there are definitely so many areas in research that are really starting to flourish that it is hard to single out even a few, for risk of missing some.

But I would have to say that our concussion research is really starting to find its mark A few years ago, when we really started to look at this area of research, I’ll admit that we were a bit fragmented in our approach. But the work that is going on now is leading in all areas thanks to a large number of individuals.  I think of the work being done on young athletes and developing markers of traumatic brain injury and the potential for recovery such as that being published this year by Dr. Douglas Fraser, Ravi Menon, PhD, Arthur Brown, PhD, and Greg Dekaban, PhD, as just one of many highlights. The See the Line event has become a signature event for us and a wonderful venue for bringing the community into the University, and vice versa.

There’s also a renewed focus on cardiovascular research. Some of our newer faculty members including Jefferson Frisbee, PhD, Donald Welsh, PhD, and Mamadou Diop, PhD, are enriching the research. Their work is adding to an already outstanding and well established group of scientists including Dr, Geoffrey Pickering, Mel Bolton, PhD, and Chris Ellis, PhD.

There’s also some really exciting work going on in cancer research with the ability to track single cells and map their propensity to metastasis, including Alison Allan, PhD, Dr. Muriel Brackstone, Paula Foster, PhD, and John Ronald, PhD.

On the education side of the house, competency based medical education is a new initiative for our School. It began with our postgraduate training programs and now we as a School have decided that it will be applied across the spectrum of all our medical education programs from undergraduate to postgraduate and continuing professional development.

One of the areas where I’ve been really pleased to watch progression is in distributed medical education. The establishment of the new structure with regional Academies is really progressing. Distributed education is vital to our education programs, so it is wonderful to see this moving along. We are continuing to work in this area, but I have to say the work that has been done to date, which was led by Dr. Bertha Garcia and implemented through Dr. George Kim’s team is outstanding. It’s a unique model and I can’t wait to see the Academies fully function.

There has been an incredible amount of work done within the School of Dentistry, ranging from completion of the strategic plan which speaks directly to the quality of education provided to our dental students, to the infrastructure needed to ensure the highest quality of skill development, through to the ongoing recruitment of a CRC in dental sciences research.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined two specific calls to action for medical schools. How is Schulich Medicine & Dentistry enacting those calls?

We are doing it very carefully. For me, there are two phases to this work.

Initially, I felt that it was critical that all of us develop a greater understanding about the history of Indigenous people in Canada. Although we will never be able to truly place ourselves in the shoes of those who have suffered so greatly by the policies of our predecessors, we can try to fully understand their impact on the current health crisis affecting Indigenous people. The sessions that we held all spring and that we held this fall with Ry Moran really served the purpose of opening up ourselves to this conversation.

Understanding that gaining this knowledge will take a great period of time, we also have to move forward and begin the much more difficult task of achieving the calls to action. We will be cautious in our approach, but only because I want to be sure we can fully deliver on those calls in a manner that is both respectful and sustainable for generations to come.

As we have been educating ourselves, a great number of ideas have found their way into a working document on how we can realize the calls to action.

We have begun to review these ideas and to engage with the Indigenous communities across Southwestern Ontario in addition to the wider community that is our School and the University where much broader questions are also being addressed regarding the calls to action.

I’m pleased with our engagement so far and I look forward to the conversations, which will take place in the coming months. It’s very important to me that we deliver on what we plan, so caution and consultation is necessary.

The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada (AFMC) is also working on this from a national standpoint. As the president of the AFMC, I’m very engaged in the process.

Of all the projects or initiatives that I have been involved with at the School or on a national level, this one is really the most complex and intricate.

What do you believe are the two biggest challenges medical and dental schools will face in the next few years? How can we better prepare for those challenges?

I see two major challenges for medical and dental schools in the coming years – the growing issue of health inequities and research funding.

The whole question of health inequities across Canada and around the world is a growing concern. And as we look down the road in the next 10 to 20 years, we need to consider our training of physicians and be better prepared for these challenges and risks that we will be facing.

I would like to see medical and dental schools working more closely with all levels of government so that we can ensure that all Canadians can receive the health care they need and deserve.  

Research funding also continues to be a major challenge for all academic institutions across the country. The simple fact is that research costs money, and those costs will not change. What we need to do is better educate our politicians and the general public to understand that their health is supported through research.

You are now in the midst of your second term as Dean of the School, what do you still want to accomplish?

Short answer – there’s a lot. I am in a place, however, where what I am doing is really setting the foundation for the next Dean of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

The first is to maintain a stable financial position for the School. We live in a very unstable financial world, but I’m hoping that I can maintain a stable and sustainable budget. I am truly lucky in that our administrative team here is amongst the best in the country. We are constantly being asked how we have achieved what we have, and there are routinely teams from other schools visiting us.  So, achieving this goal is realistic but only because of our people.

I’d like to see us move forward with the plans for the development of new facilities for our research and education programs.

We’ve recruited many young researchers, and the early stage of their careers is really the most vulnerable period for them. So I want to make sure that we put structures and supports in place to lessen that vulnerability.

Then of course, there is the goal of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry cracking the top level of ranking of medical schools in Canada. We’re really hitting it out of the park in terms of our research and our education programs, and I believe we are very close to breaking into that top rank.

And finally, I’d really like to see us create a stronger environment and provide the resources that are necessary, so our faculty and staff can achieve the work-life balance that they need and want to thrive in. Many of us have what I believe are the best jobs in the world, so I want to ensure we are creating an environment that will provide that same level of satisfaction for the majority of our faculty and staff.

In the past year, the School has been hosting more events engaging alumni, are you planning to continue with these events and if so where?

Yes, we’ve had a great time meeting with more alumni – and I’ve really enjoyed it. This is their School, so taking the time to meet with alumni across the country is very important. We are planning on doing a number of events this year, in Toronto, Halifax, and in London, Ontario. There will be more news and information shared about those event soon.