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.