Thriving on discovery: A Q&A with Robert Bartha, vice dean, Research & Innovation

Rob Bartha, PhD, vice dean, Research & Innovation, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

By Communications

Robert Bartha is out to raise research to solve the important health challenges of our time.

And he is well positioned to do so. Bartha, PhD, whose own area of research focuses on the development of high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for the early diagnosis of disease, was appointed Vice Dean, Research & Innovation in August 2022.

“Research at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry is entering a new and exciting period of growth. We have an opportunity to create a vibrant, focused, and highly skilled team that will accelerate medical innovation and discovery.”

In this Q&A, Bartha paints his vision for a research-intensive program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Q. What attracted you to this position?

I was attracted to this position because we have an immediate opportunity to grow and expand our impact on medical research. I want to create a research culture that thrives on the excitement of new discovery and is theme focused and resourced to solve important health challenges. We have a chance to redefine how research is conducted, focusing on fundamentals like well-resourced core facilities that can be utilized by all. By joining the leadership team at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, my hope is that I can help create a positive and inclusive environment across the School as well as increase partnerships both within academia and with industry.

Q. As vice dean, what is your approach to leadership?

In leading the research portfolio here, my goal is to create a well-resourced, enthusiastic, inclusive, and high-performing environment capable of generating new knowledge that has a positive impact on the health of our community. The first step is to ensure our goals are clearly defined, and our research community is aligned to them. To create this environment, I will rely on broad perspectives to better understand the research needs and priorities of our faculty.

Q. How is the research environment changing?

Today more than ever, scientists work in multidisciplinary groups that range in size from a few individuals to dozens of contributors. Some projects reside within a single lab, while others require multiple laboratories from around the world contributing to recruitment and analysis of large-scale data sets. We are entering a time where the sharing of information is accelerating. This new approach to science will lead to an incredible amount of data available to researchers, and, combined with new data analysis approaches, will provide unprecedented opportunities for new discoveries that will improve the health of our community.

Q. Describe the research environment when you took on the role.

“Our research is entering a new and exciting period of growth. We have an opportunity to create a vibrant, focused, and highly skilled team that will accelerate medical innovation and discovery.” — Rob Bartha, PhD

The research environment at the School is complex. Faculty are associated with academic departments, as well as theme-based groups, centres, and institutes. Thematically, we have world-class research strengths in several areas that are well defined, and others that are emerging. We have core facilities that support our research infrastructure, some are well established and functioning at the highest level, and others are building capacity. We have outstanding faculty who are dedicated to improving our understanding and treatment of disease with the goal of increasing the health of people in our community.

First, we will focus on fundamentals. As a faculty, we will strengthen the operational effectiveness and sustainability of our core facilities, which provide essential infrastructure and expertise to our researchers. We have tremendous opportunities to grow research support through individual investigator-led grants, industry partnerships, and contributing to team science. We are all looking forward to infrastructure renewal and partnerships through facilities that will be built in the coming years along with revitalization of existing laboratories.

A major opportunity is to build interdisciplinary research and to foster translational research initiatives. These include partnerships with our local hospitals, research institutes, and industry. We will look to expand partnership opportunities with industry through the BioNext Innovation Hub, the Research Park, and WORLDiscoveries. This avenue will increase the practical impact of our research by providing a mechanism to bring discoveries into the hands of entrepreneurs who can develop products to benefit Canadians.

Q. What is your vision for research at Schulich Medicine?

To maximize our research impact, we must create an environment and culture that focuses on research excellence, collaboration, and support, and leverages our resources and ingenuity to increase our ability to translate discoveries to practically improve health.

First, we will work to align the goals of our researchers more closely, so there is a common understanding of our mission and responsibilities. We will create a culture where research excellence and success are celebrated, and effort is acknowledged. We will continue to foster curiosity-driven research targeted to increasing our understanding of disease processes, while also accelerating the translation of new findings into the clinic and industry. We will identify and enhance efforts in themes where we have established research strength, critical mass, and potential for further growth. We will continue to develop the environment across our faculty to enhance interaction between clinician scientists and basic scientists as well as industry partners.

Our research is entering a new and exciting period of growth. We have an opportunity to create a vibrant, focused, and highly skilled team that will accelerate medical innovation and discovery.

Q. What strengths do we have to build on as we progress towards this goal?

Our greatest strength is our people – faculty, staff, and trainees - along with our commitment to research excellence and belonging. We will continue to develop processes that are inclusive, fair and promote a diverse and safe working environment. We will promote opportunities for under-represented groups in research by encouraging all faculty to develop equity, diversity, and inclusion action plans that result in meaningful change.

Fundamental to our success is growing our network of skilled researchers and support staff and creating an environment where they can thrive. Ensuring they are highly motivated, well compensated, and meaningful contributors to our research goals is critical to our future success.

One of the most important responsibilities of faculty is raising funds to support the operation of their labs, staff, and trainees. We have had many important grant successes over the past decade, including major Canadian Foundation for Innovation awards to support infrastructure and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund: BrainsCAN. Moving forward, we must continue to increase research funding, and it is the responsibility of every faculty member to contribute to this endeavor either by leading grants to support their own operation or contributing to or leading larger team-based initiatives. The Schulich Research Office along with Western Research will continue to support and encourage both basic science and clinical faculty to raise research funding through traditional grant sources such as the Tri-Council agencies, or industry partnerships.

Q. Tell us about the major research themes you are moving forward with, and why they are an important focus?

Research here crosses the lifespan and is multidisciplinary by nature. However, further development of our greatest strengths is of primary importance. We have extensive expertise and opportunities in neuroscience and neurological disorders, infectious disease, and musculoskeletal disease, as well as imaging and clinical trials. Some of these align with existing institutes and centres at Western. These larger themes will continue to be a major focus as we strive to increase our research impact and reputation.

Other research themes will also be supported as they emerge. In addition, we will continue to actively work with our hospital partners to enhance translational research opportunities throughout London.

Q. What other initiatives are underway to the support the research environment here?

We are working closely with Schulich Communications to raise the profile of research internally across our School. We have outstanding faculty who are highly engaged in promoting their research. Yet we don’t celebrate these achievements routinely. We are working on a new newsletter that will keep everyone informed of accomplishments and opportunities. Plans are to launch this communication in 2023.

Our Schulich Research Council will include research and administrative leaders and provide recommendations on research strategy to the Vice Dean, Research and Innovation and the Dean. This group will be composed of research leaders from across the faculty and academic leaders, who will provide input and suggestions to the Vice Dean regarding research infrastructure renewal, research organization, resource allocation, and communications. More information about the formation of this important new structure will be presented in the coming months.

Continuing to build our brand based on areas of research strength will be a primary focus. This activity is critical to building the reputation of the School and reinforcing our values of scientific excellence and belonging. We will continue to support the creation and growth of new areas, as our science and technologies evolve. But we must also leverage our strength to enhance our reputation as leaders.

"I want to create a research culture that thrives on the excitement of new discovery and is theme focused and resourced to solve important health challenges." - Rob Bartha

Q. How do we become more of a research-intensive organization?

There are a number of areas where we will focus attention in the next several years to increase research intensity and impact. We have all experienced a difficult time during the COVID-19 pandemic, which in many ways has changed how research and teaching are performed. We must now find renewed energy to obtain investigator-led grant support and increase the number and overall quality of grants we submit across our faculty. The research office provides support for the development of grants through various information sessions and mentorship programs.

We have established areas of research strength and we must continue to build in these areas through recruitment and partnerships.

One of our top priorities is to develop world-class core facilities that provide innovative solutions to help faculty obtain the data they need. We have numerous cores that can be leveraged by faculty for their research, but the operation of cores must be taken to the next level to provide greater access to new equipment and ensure the long-term sustainability of these vital resources.

Q. What happens if we don’t move forward with these changes?

Research success is critical to the reputation of our School, to Western, and to the health of our community. Without change and focus, we will not achieve these goals.

Q. Describe the competitive environment that Schulich Medicine faces as it recruits top researchers in pursuit of these goals?

Recruitment is always a primary focus. We have recruited numerous outstanding faculty members over the past five years. I believe we need to take a more global approach to recruitment to enhance specific research themes and ensure sustainability of our core facilities. One area of focus for the Schulich Research Council will be to develop a recruitment strategy that takes a more strategic long-term view of faculty renewal.