Heading toward his fifth year leading Harvard Medical School, Dean George Q. Daley commended the HMS community in his annual State of the School address on Oct. 5 for meeting and overcoming the many challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 19 months as he outlined the School’s institutional priorities for the future.
“This has been a tumultuous time for physicians, hospitals, educators, students, and staff, and yet we have rallied together, and as a community demonstrated remarkable resilience and courage. We’ve maintained a laser focus on what matters most: doing whatever it takes to continue to deliver on the HMS mission,” Daley said during the virtual address, expressing gratitude for the work the community’s done to keep the campus safe and operating efficiently under difficult circumstances.
“The pandemic has been a stern teacher, but it has compelled us to come together and pool our resources to achieve new scientific heights through collaboration and community,” he said.
Daley took the opportunity in his address to describe where the School was just before the pandemic began and why the institution was able to respond to the crisis so well. He also discussed how some of the lessons learned have helped shape, and will advance, HMS’ institutional priorities going forward.
Because HMS was undertaking steps prior to the pandemic to address a decade of financial hardship caused by the global financial crisis of 2007-08, and to restore financial stability to the School, Daley said it was well positioned to respond to the global health care crisis.
He said funding provided by the University had helped revitalize the scientific infrastructure on the Quad. A $200 million gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation had energized research efforts and investments, helping with the modernization of the School’s IT infrastructure, investments in computational science, and the launch of the HMS Therapeutics initiative.
As a result, Daley said, HMS’ stability, coupled with the School’s strong history of excellence in biomedical research, enabled it to rapidly convene a network of hundreds of researchers, physician-scientists, clinicians, and public health experts from all four Massachusetts medical schools, its affiliated hospitals and research institutions, MIT, and several biopharma companies within the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, or MassCPR. They were joined by global collaborators from the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health and other institutions from China and around the world.
“MassCPR investigators organized clinical trial networks and recruited cohorts of patients for clinical research, played major roles in the development of the Moderna and J&J vaccines, and forged cross-institutional collaborations to solve the most puzzling mysteries about SARS-CoV-2 and its pathogenesis,” Daley said, explaining that the consortium confronted COVID-19 from multiple angles: epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccine development, clinical disease management and outcomes, and importantly, health equity.
The dean said the group is continuing its work and has added two research areas to address viral variants and long COVID.
Daley said one of the valuable lessons learned from the pandemic is the importance of collaborative science, which he identified as one of four priorities for the School going forward. The other priorities are inclusive excellence, institutional resilience, and transformative education and training.
He explained that MassCPR was just one example of the kind of collaborative, synergetic science taking place at HMS. He cited the new therapeutics initiative led by Mark Namchuk, executive director of therapeutics translation, as another.
He said the therapeutics initiative, which aims to create new ways to advance fundamental discoveries toward new therapies, was instrumental in confronting the COVID-19 crisis and serves as a good example of how the combination of academic and industrial science can energize and advance the impact of fundamental science.
He said the Quadrangle Fund for Advancing and Seeding Translational Research, or QFASTR, has been supporting early-stage research projects in therapeutics and diagnostics, resulting in 32 patents, several new companies, and more than $63 million in follow-on funding.
Daley added that the HMS Center for Computational Biomedicine will provide more opportunities for collaborative science “allowing for the integration of data from multiple domains, the development of a more holistic understanding of the biological processes underlying disease, and the emergence of dynamic collaborations between machine learning experts, wet lab scientists, and clinical practitioners.”
New faculty hires
To further advance and support collaborative science, Daley said the School this year conducted its first cohort hire, with several HMS basic science departments coming together to collaborate on a single search for junior faculty, selecting outstanding candidates first and finding departmental homes for them second. The search criteria prioritized scientific excellence and a demonstrated commitment to the School’s institutional values of diversity and community.
He said four candidates accepted offers to join Quad-based HMS departments, including Josefina Inés del Mármol in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, Aleena Garner and Carlos Ponce, both in neurobiology, and Silvia Rouskin in microbiology.
Two more candidates have accepted offers at Boston Children’s Hospital, with additional appointments to the Blavatnik Institute at HMS. They will join seven other junior faculty recruited since January 2020.
Coupled with dozens of faculty hired at affiliate hospitals, the new faculty “represent a powerful revitalization of our faculty ranks,” he said. Their addition also supports the institutional priority of inclusive excellence as the School promotes achievement by fostering a culture of equity and inclusivity embodied in the HMS Better Together plan, he added.
Daley said HMS has made strides over the past year in advancing diversity and inclusion efforts. A new promotions criteria was established to take into account faculty members’ efforts to advance diversity and inclusion, and an anti-racism task force analyzed the School’s Program in Medical Education, making recommendations, several of which have already been adopted, that include anti-racism training for faculty and students, an increase in faculty underrepresented in medicine, and better coordination of anti-racism efforts between the School and affiliate hospitals.
Transformative education, institutional resilience
In addition to the School’s mission of generating new knowledge through research, Daley said, as an educational institution HMS has a responsibility to provide transformative teaching and learning experiences, another priority.
He cited the advances made by the School’s Office for External Education, Graduate Education program, and Program in Medical Education during the pandemic, as they transitioned to remote learning but achieved advanced pedagogical innovation even in the face of “severe academic disruption.”
The Office for External Education, he said, saw “impressive increases” in enrollment, helping the School bring its expertise in health information and medical science learning to large, new audiences around the globe.
The dean also lauded the School community for making sacrifices and practicing fiscal discipline over the past year and a half in an effort to secure its financial stability.
“Thanks to your characteristic resolve during the pandemic, we now have more frugal departments, more efficient ways of teaching, and a more diversified portfolio of funding sources that allowed HMS to better weather the financial shock to our system,” he said.
“Despite the pandemic, today we are a more financially resilient institution than before.”
The dean said despite the threat of financial losses brought on by the pandemic, the School succeeded in nearly balancing its budget while avoiding major layoffs or furloughs. He attributed some of the success “to the rapid adoption of online teaching and learning strategies that catered to a broader, remote universe of students, which produced heartening upticks in revenues from online master’s programs and external education programs.”
Daley said he is optimistic that the School’s financial health is moving in the right direction and he anticipates a strong year for the HMS endowment, which provides revenues for operating the School and investing in its research and education missions. But he added that the community must remain cautious in its spending.
The dean closed by saying that by remaining focused on its institutional priorities, HMS can extend its long tradition of excellence and innovation, which he said will be particularly important in coming decades as the community contends with the health impacts of climate change, recurrent pandemics, and complex bioethical dilemmas.
“At HMS our charge is to make these challenges less daunting by strengthening this institution today,” Daley said.
By maintaining a focus on its priorities, he added, the community can continue to build “a more resilient Harvard Medical School for the future,” and maintain “a legacy of achievement and service that will make us all proud.”