One month check in with Dr. John Yoo

Dr. John Yoo began as the School’s Dean on May 1. Four weeks into the role, we sat down with him to check in on what’s been keeping him busy and his plans for the coming weeks and months.

You’ve now been in the role as Dean for four weeks, how are things going?

Has it been four weeks?

Boy, I gotta tell ya…It feels like it’s been a lot longer than that. I have been thinking about why that is.

Maybe it has seemed longer because of the current set of circumstances. This entire time, it has felt like we’ve been playing defense. I think most of us are hardwired to be driven. Hardwired that when things get tough and we are being backed into a corner, we tend to bear down and huddle together, to fight harder, work longer. 

But this situation is so different in that way. It’s as if we are being made to do exactly the opposite. Some of us are told to stay home, pause our research, stop seeing patients in hospital, hold off on completing those administrative projects. And that has never been the way we have battled adversity.

I think that is why it feels like we have been playing defense this entire time. It gets tiring.

But that aside, I have been so impressed by faculty and staff. Their dedication to our academic mission and to the education of learners has been nothing short of inspiring.

And I feel for the research community, many of whom have had to press the pause button. But I love the fact that they are restless and hungry to return. Their passion for research shines through in their sense of urgency to return.

I am so glad that finally, after almost three months, I think we are now seeing some glimmers of light.

When are we going to be heading back to campus?

The road to recovery is a priority for us right now. And although it looks quiet on campus, we have never left. For many, there remains a great deal of work being done. And for most, I like to think we have remained on our virtual campus this entire time, putting in longer days than ever before. Especially the extraordinary efforts of our educators, researchers and staff, and clinical faculty; these folks have been working double-time whether on campus or at home.

As you may know, on May 21, we announced a comprehensive plan for a “return to research excellence” for the entirety of our enterprise. We have a high-stakes responsibility, like few others, to return to research. Much of what we do goes directly to point. It is about looking for better ways of treating patients and fighting COVID.

The first and highest priority is to optimize the safety of our students, faculty and staff. The return will be a graduated approach with four phases and six to eight weeks, carefully monitoring as we go. And while I don’t think it will be business as usual, we are looking to achieve a new normal homeostasis that will enable all labs to become operational. But to a personnel capacity of 60 per cent occupancy at any one time.

Most importantly, the message is to shoot for 100 per cent effectiveness – 100 per cent research productivity – by being efficient and cooperative.

It will really be about working smarter with what we have.

The logistics, such as scheduling, cooperation between users and monitoring, are significant. It means rotating time and space between investigators and students. It means demonstrating flexibility and creativity. And this degree of coordinating and planning has only been possible because of the extraordinary efforts from the leadership team – Basic Science Chairs Alison Allan and Jeff Frisbee, and our Vice Dean, Research & Innovation David Litchfield, as well as Paul Paolatto, the School’s Chief Administrative Officer. Also, this has required the support and cooperation of facilities and human resources at the central University. 

What’s the work environment going to be look like when we return? How will the University ensure the safety of faculty, staff and students?

The key for a successful return is safety.

We, as a medical and dental school, must be role models in this. At Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, I think we do have a bit of a leg up because our researchers are used to working with hazardous materials and infectious agents even during regular times. The critical importance of safety protocols and procedures is well known to us. Key ingredients are personal protection, hygiene practices, appropriate physical distancing and cleaning. But even before that, there are numerous safeguards in place including screening tools to ensure that people aren’t at risk. Testing, tracing, and self-isolation when required will be clearly outlined with the help of our regional health authorities.

Outside the pandemic, what are your next priorities?

Outside the planning for our return, I wanted to take the first weeks of my term getting to know individuals and groups face-to-face, understanding people’s goals, motivations, challenges, and overall, getting a feel for the hum and cadence of our rich and complex organization.

With the help of technology and people’s good humour, I have been able to do this during the past month but I intend to accelerate this during the next few weeks. I intend to meet various groups of students, departments and programs.

Concurrent to this, I have three key priorities. The most important priority for me during the summer is to ensure that we have as great a curriculum for the fall term as we can possibly provide. I think the President and Provost have been courageous in making the decision to open our campus to a student experience that Western is known for, at least as a hybrid model of delivery. We wholeheartedly support this and, especially as a professional school, experiential learning is integral to our curriculum. Developing a curriculum that is nimble enough to be provided either face-to-face or remotely places even greater challenge to our faculty. And they are rising to this challenge.

The second is to ensure that our researchers are supported, operational and successful.

And thirdly, in the medium term, we need to start laying the groundwork to begin our strategic plan. I want people to start thinking about more than COVID-19. I think we are all ready for something beyond the present situation, something more forward thinking. Dare I say, let’s go on the offensive for a change.