Fall 2013

Growing New Synapses

The medical school undergoes its first major reorganization in more than a century to promote catalytic research in a time of ever-tighter funding

By Bruce Morgan

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Illustration: Stephanie Dalton Cowan

From the start, Phil Hinds could see something happening right in front of him that was well worth encouraging. When the faculty members of his newly forged department got together for their first few meetings, people were striking up conversations about their shared research interests and that simply hadn’t occurred before. Many were connecting for the first time.

Tufts Medical School is a large, sprawling research enterprise, and it’s difficult for anyone to be aware of everything that’s going on. A new top-to-bottom reorganization of the school may help eliminate some of the critical distances and generate more naturally occurring synergies of the kind that Hinds witnessed.

The new organizational plan took effect on July 1 under the leadership of Dean Harris Berman, and Hinds is ready for the change. “We want to take advantage of the opportunities to sit down and talk to each other more frequently and find out where the connections are,” says Hinds, formerly a professor of radiation oncology. “I don’t think there has been an optimal number of collisions and interactions.”

Phil Hinds

Phil Hinds
Photo: Alonso Nichols

His new department, where he now serves as professor and interim chair, is called the Department of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology, or DMCB for short. It consists of members of the former departments of biochemistry, pathology, physiology and pharmacology, and anatomy.

To improve the odds of uncovering creative links, Hinds is sponsoring “short-talk” seminars within DMCB every Friday afternoon, when department members get the chance to describe their research passions in a nutshell. Of course, the men and women in his audience weren’t totally out of touch previously; they all had a certain amount of convergence with each other over shared interests—through what Hinds jokingly terms “leaky silos.” But the goal at Tufts School of Medicine is to demolish those silos in the months and years ahead.

Better Funding Model

It’s been a while coming. Since the release of the landmark Flexner Report in 1910 that critically assessed the state of U.S. medical education, medical schools have been organized around departments designed for effective teaching of medical students, Berman explains. In the century since then, even as medical instruction has assumed a new shape and form, the old patterns remained. “There has been a shift from teaching to research with these departments, yet the organizational model stayed the same,” Berman says.

This outmoded scheme has hampered the cross-disciplinary forms of research that increasingly yield breakthroughs and win grant approval, notes the dean. (“If you’re looking for grants through the National Cancer Institute, times are brutal,” Hinds confirms. “Group efforts fare better.”)

Over the past year or so, working in consultation with the medical faculty in a series of often-spirited meetings, Berman has essentially shuffled the institutional deck and distributed the cards in a pattern more reflective of the way that catalytic research is carried out and supported in a time of ever more stringent funding.

The dean cites cancer research as one example of today’s naturally dissolving boundaries. “Cancer doesn’t fit in any one department,” he says. “Instead, it fits into many departments. I’ve worked with the faculty to ask what will research look like 15 or 20 years from now, and how should we be organized to prepare for that?” The resulting scheme is pragmatic at its core. As Berman sees it, “We need to focus as a medical school and be world class in everything we do.”

The seven basic science departments that were in place when Berman assumed the deanship three-and-a-half years ago have been trimmed to four—the existing neuroscience and microbiology departments (two longstanding powerhouses of the medical school) and two newly configured ones. In the first, the DMCB, the emphasis will be largely on cancer. “Cancer is a major theme of the department, but not an exclusive focus,” Hinds points out. It will be home to 24 tenured faculty members.

Laura Liscum

Laura Liscum
Photo: Kathleen Dooher

Laura Liscum, formerly professor of molecular physiology and pharmacology, will act as interim chair of the second, newly christened Department of Integrative Physiology and Pathobiology (IPP), organized around efforts to understand inflammation and its effects. “We are finding that inflammation is a problem that underlies all chronic disease that we get as we age,” she says. That department will house 29 faculty members.

Two permanent chairs plus eight new faculty members, divided between DMCB and IPP, are to be hired in the near future.

Peter Brodeur Photo: Joanie Tobin

Peter Brodeur
Photo: Joanie Tobin

In both cases, the departmental labels, DMCB and IPP, reflect a broad spectrum of approaches to pursue a single theme. A newly formed Division of Medical Education, led by Associate Professor Peter Brodeur and organizationally part of the IPP, will be home to faculty who are devoted full time to teaching as opposed to research.

Separately, individual faculty members within IPP have studied arthritis, autoimmune disorders, birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious pathology, metabolic and neurological disease, obesity, reproductive disorders and wound healing. Now, joined around what Liscum calls “a core thread of effort,” they will be exploring the inflammatory response and the regeneration and repair mechanisms that restore normal functioning to damaged tissue. “There are some diseases where inflammation plays a major role and others where it plays a minor role,” she says. “But if we can attack it, we can have an influence on the disease.”

Li Zeng is a good example of how fertile new collaborations within her department will likely pay dividends. Zeng, an associate professor trained as a cell biologist, has been examining strategies to prevent the degeneration of cartilage that leads to inflammation and arthritis. Formerly, she was surrounded by other cell biologists. Now, as a member of IPP, she rubs shoulders with immunologists, including Stephen Bunnell and Sasha Poltorak, who are studying the cells that cause the inflammation. Liscum sees this as a perfect mesh of research interests.

For his part, Hinds ascribes the value of the new departmental template to something that extends beyond the neatness of two puzzle pieces clicking together on a tabletop—to the cognitive processes behind the display. “The way people think about their fields is sufficiently different that you tend to get more insights when you bring these fields together,” says Hinds. “It becomes very useful to mix them. Everything overlaps,” he adds, in a comment that could be a succinct summary for everything in motion at the medical school these days, “and you have to be open to using every discipline you can to solve the question in front of you.”

Bruce Morgan, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.

 

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