November 2011

 

 Feature_Glimcher 
Laurie Glimcher will be the first female dean in the 114 years of Weill Cornell Medical Center’s existence.

On Jan. 1, Laurie Glimcher of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health will become the first woman to serve as dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. Glimcher is a practicing physician and has an impressive track record in biomedical research. Her laboratory exploits biochemical and genetic tools to elucidate the molecular pathways involved in lymphocyte development and activation in the immune system. In recent years, Glimcher’s research interests have expanded into skeletal biology. She also has experience in the pharmaceutical industry and sits on the board of Bristol-Myers Squibb and has collaborated with Merck Co.

The awards Glimcher has won over the years include the FASEB Excellence in Science Award (2000), the American Society of Clinical Investigation Outstanding Investigator Award (2001) and the American College of Rheumatology Distinguished Investigator Award (2006). She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and belongs to the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Glimcher is also a member and past president of the American Association of Immunologists.

ASBMB Today spoke with Glimcher to find out about her goals for Weill Cornell Medical College, her vision for the future of the biomedical research enterprise, her management style, and her ideas to help women take on more prominent roles in science and medicine. Below are edited excerpts from the interview:

What made you decide it was time to make a new career move? 

I was ready to spend more of my energy and effort in thinking about the health of biomedical research in this country. As a physician-scientist, I thought leading an academic medical institution, which was involved in basic biomedical research and translation of the research into the clinic, was the ideal place. This job came up, and I was asked to put in my CV. I spent a lot of time interviewing and thinking about [the job] and decided it was exactly what I was looking for.

What are some of the opportunities you see for WCMC? 

I want a place that is committed both to the basic biomedical sciences and the translation of discovery into the clinical care delivered to patients. WCMC is perfectly positioned to be on the forefront of academic medicine thanks to the fantastic work of the current dean, Antonio Grotto; Sanford Weill, who is the chair of the board of overseers; the board of overseers and the president of Cornell, David Skorton. A new research building, for which Tony Gotto, Sandy Weill and the others have raised $1.3 billion so far, is going up with the intent of making it into a first-rate biomedical research center. It has one of the best hospitals in New York City, outstanding medical education, an excellent graduate student program and, clearly, a history of greatness in the biomedical sciences. My feeling is that with this brand-new research building under construction, WCMC is poised for pre-eminence in the biomedical sciences, which it has already achieved in clinical medicine.

WCMC has several key advantages. It’s got strong ties to other New York City institutions. It has the tri-institutional graduate-student program, which it shares with Rockefeller [University] and with [Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center]. There are collaborations that are already ongoing between these three, but I think there could be more opportunities for collaboration in interdisciplinary science.

Another key connection is WCMC’s close alliance with its outstanding parent university, whose president, David Skorton, is a physician-scientist. One of Cornell University’s strategic goals is to increase faculty excellence. I share President Skorton’s belief that this is the central mission of the next dean. WCMC is a part of Cornell University, and I look forward to strengthening that bond through shared interests and interactions among the current and to-be-recruited biomedical scientists. I think it’s an enormous opportunity for enhanced collaboration between the parent university and the medical school.

What are some of the challenges you anticipate? 

A big challenge for all American biomedical research institutions is funding. The [National Institutes of Health], I am sure I don’t have to tell you, has tightened its belt and is going to tighten it further. It’s a big challenge for all of us to support ourselves in this current financially constrained environment. We have to be thinking creatively about how to support biomedical research by private foundations, philanthropy and appropriate partnering with the private sector. WCMC has academic excellence and an attractive location, and I think it’s going to be possible to recruit first-rate senior and junior faculty in a variety of disciplines. I also think its relatively small size makes it a perfect laboratory for developing innovative approaches to medical education, translational research, clinical care and academia-private sector collaborations.

What steps will you take to foster more collaboration between academia and industry and between physicians and researchers?  

I think the dean needs to be deeply involved in both basic biomedical research and clinical translational research. It’s a real opportunity to strengthen research in both and to get the clinicians collaborating with the scientists. There is also New York-Presbyterian Hospital, of course, and I’m very eager to maintain and expand the excellent relationship that the current dean has established between the medical college and the hospital.

I really believe that the private sector is essential to translational research. We have to leverage the talents of everybody but always, always, always shine a bright light on any potential conflict of interest. There is an old saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” You have got to keep everything above board, open and transparent.

We had a wonderful collaboration with Merck for three years. We serendipitously had isolated a new gene that controls adult bone mass. We established a real partnership with [Merck]. It wasn’t as if they wrote us a check and said good-bye.  We met with Merck project leaders and scientists on a monthly basis to review our joint progress. We helped design a high-throughput drug screen that Merck scientists could use to screen their chemical libraries. They identified some compounds, and we looked at them in cultures of osteoblasts to see if they actually activated osteoblasts. Their funding allowed me to establish a presence in the field of skeletal biology, which I had never been in before. I built a team of really superb postdocs who had come to me originally to work in immunology and instead became skeletal biologists. This is a field that is underpopulated and ripe for expansion and recruitment of bright young scientists. This funding [from Merck] allowed me to make good progress, but it also allowed me to train some talented young people for the field. I could have never done that with NIH funding alone.

In an environment of financial belt-tightening, how will you identify research directions? 

 Feature_Glimcher_kids 
 Glimcher with her three children in 2008. 

First of all, I’m going to be doing a lot of fundraising. We will have some resources, but there is always a need for more.

But you’re right, it’s a small place. We can’t do everything and need to focus.  One area WCMC has chosen to focus on is neurodegenerative diseases. WCMC received a wonderful gift from one of the members of the board of overseers, Robert Appel, to fund a center for neurodegenerative disease. WCMC recruited Steven Paul from Eli Lilly [and Co.] to head it. The intent is to do more recruiting in that area. Neurodegenerative diseases are going to take down our health-care system if we can’t figure out how to deal with them. As the population ages, we’re going to have many millions of people over the age of 80 who have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It’s our responsibility as biomedical scientists and physicians to figure out how to tackle these diseases. Another area of huge unmet medical need is metabolic syndromes: the triad of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These diseases are going to be an enormous drain on our health-care system.

I am very interested in skeletal biology. Before I joined this field, I had no idea that osteoporosis is the most common disease worldwide. One out of two women over the age of 50 have osteoporosis or will develop osteoporosis, and it’s one out of five for men. There’s major mortality from fractures. The numbers are startling: 25 percent of individuals who sustain a fracture are dead within a year. The Hospital for Special Surgery is closely aligned with Weill Cornell. They are interested in expanding their biomedical research, and I think this is a wonderful opportunity to do that.

How do you describe your leadership style? 

I have developed my leadership and management style both from my many years of supervising a large lab and my years on corporate boards. My own management style is very relaxed. My door is always open. If postdocs and graduate students get a result they are excited about or have a question, they are welcome to pop their heads in. If somebody wants to meet with me, they don’t have to go to my secretary and say “I need to arrange a meeting with Laurie” and be told “That will be four days from now.” Absolutely not. If they need to speak to me, I will find time to speak to them right away. Period.

I have no problems with making tough decisions, but I think one always has to be respectful of one’s colleagues. That’s not just the people who are your peers or your superiors but, most important, the people who report to you. I judge myself and other people by the quality of their interactions with individuals below them in the pecking order. 

I make the decision I think is right and best for the institution. Then I explain why I made that decision to people who might not agree. That’s going to be really important as dean, because you can’t always get everyone on board. You can’t get consensus all the time, but people have to understand how you reached a decision.

You are only the second woman to be named dean for a major medical school. The first was Nancy Andrews for Duke University School of Medicine in 2007. What needs to be done for female scientists and physicians to take on more prominent roles? 

It is a tough problem. You have biology intersecting with a time when you need to be devoted to your career. It’s not easy, and I know that. I’ve lived through it with three kids. I remember when I was a postdoc at the NIH. The guys – at least some of them, not all – would sit around, schmooze and talk science. They didn’t have to think about picking up a child at day care. I barely ever saw the cafeteria at NIH. I would make lunch and bring it in a paper bag. I didn’t have time to have coffee and chat with the other postdocs. I had to work, work, work, because I had to pick up my daughter at 5 o’clock from day care! When I was home while she was still awake, I spent time with her, but I would be up late working. I didn’t want to spend my entire weekend in the lab. Yes, I would go into the lab for a few hours [on weekends] but couldn’t and didn’t want to do that all the time. This became even more challenging with the arrival of two more children over the next several years.

Ideally, postdocs who are primary caregivers should have access to another pair of hands to help level the playing field. I’m not saying they shouldn’t do the experiments themselves, and of course they should direct the research. But, realistically, they may not be able to put in the long hours during the week and weekend that their peers can. I started a program when I was president of the AAI, the PCTAS program at [the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases], which stands for Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements. It provided technician salaries. It was a small program. I wish it had more funding, but I did get a number of letters from young women who said it made a real difference in their careers for them to have a technician.

You have received numerous awards. Which one makes you most proud? 

The award that I’m the most proud of is the American Association of Immunologists’ Excellence in Mentoring award [in 2008]. That, to me, is the major task of the senior scientist. It’s to train the next generation. I think it’s a huge responsibility. It’s going to be one of my emphases as dean to make sure the mentoring programs at WCMC are as good as they should be.

Raj_MukhopadhyayRajendrani Mukhopadhyay (rmukhopadhyay@asbmb.org) is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and technical editor for JBC. 

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