WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2014
Dean Laurie Glimcher:
Weill Cornell Medical College
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
It’s been two years since Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher assumed the position of the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) in New York—a period she describes as a “blur of exhilaration and exhaustion.” As if taking on such an important administrative role did not in itself present challenges, Dean Glimcher was also appointed Professor of Medicine at WCMC and Provost for Medical Affairs at Cornell University. She also actively runs the immunology research lab she started at Harvard Medical School, from which she was graduated, though she concedes she’s had to downsize since moving from MA. She talks of having great “energy,” but a “passion” for medicine, discovered in her first semester of medical school, that better defines her deep commitment to “the pressing needs” of science, medicine and patient care. Barely in her new position at WCMC, she was already moving to institute curricular and procedural change, enhancing and prioritizing what the former dean Dr. Antonio M. Gotto had begun in 1996, but also clearly—and dynamically—putting her own stamp on innovations, some of them clearly aimed at women medical students.
Her emphases include integrative and interdisciplinary initiatives that would bring together “from day one in medical school” basic, or foundational medicine, clinical care, or “physicianship,” making students acutely aware of the larger health care environment, including balancing costs and quality care, and also recruiting more female post-docs into research who will be able to stay the course. An articulate, highly organized multitasker with a down-to-earth appreciation of real-world demands, Dean Glimcher gives particular thought as to how young women scientists with children can balance family and career and how in the academic arena she can stop attrition at its most vulnerable point, between assistant and associate professorships. She wants all WCMC graduates, however, to see themselves as “agents of hope” as well as “agents of health.”
Well aware and critical of the separation that often marks medical students who go into research as distinct from those who take on patient care, she wants all WCMC graduates to think of themselves as both scientists and physicians. She would have them “translate” what they learn from the classroom and lab work and online research to practical applications and, conversely, when treating a patient with heart disease, for example, to consider what gene sequencing can say about those at greatest risk. She is “thrilled,” about how technology is accelerating investigations into the complex molecular pathways that regulate cell development in autoimmune, infectious and malignant diseases. And, of course, she is rightfully proud of the fact that she and her team discovered T-bet, a “transcription factor driving Th1 cell differentiation.” She recalls the “Aha” moment with delight, an account that any promising medical student would take as inspirational. The achievement was especially sweet for her since it validated her own determination as a medical student with young children, though one fortunate enough to have supportive parents. Her father, she is eager to note, a doctor who went to Harvard Medical School on the G.I. Bill, took her to his lab when she was a young girl but never pressured her. Indeed, she recalls that later on, in the “hippie” 60s, she was not sure what she wanted to do. Two of her children have entered health care areas—a son who went to Harvard Medical School and a daughter, a lawyer who specializes in public health and works for the FDA; Dean Glimcher also celebrates her youngest son, who decided on a different path to being responsible and risk-taking – he is a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
How much has changed since she went to medical school, she muses, and how much she still wants it to change. In her day, students would hear lectures and then meet in small groups to discuss what they heard. She would close that artificial gap and encourage greater interaction between faculty and students. She would also encourage students to be self-learners, early on and consistently. As freshman classes start, she would have students informing themselves by way of WCMC’s rapidly growing video collection so that when they come to class, they are ready to participate in substantial discussion. She refers to the new model the “blended classroom” approach, a term coined by others, and celebrates how technology is helping to improve curricula. Indeed, the Weill Education Center is renovating its classrooms to accommodate greater online access.
To encourage women, she has proposed shared ownership of a research lab. It’s a model already in effect in other professional fields, she points out. “Imagine if two women wanting to work part time could co-head a lab and have equal responsibility and get equal credit for the lab’s findings and funding.” Otherwise bright talented women leave to raise families, some “penalized” for taking time off. As post docs women scientists are educated, motivated, ready to contribute, if not be turned on by medical mysteries. She remembers how excited she was to try to find out why some cells were regarded as friendly by the immune system but others were regarded as alien. And she remembers even more the humane prompt that led her to science in the first place.#