The CoM and our scientists

With this blog, I draw your attention to some important and exciting work being done by our scientists at the CoM. Their efforts directly contribute to growth and innovation in our research portfolio and their research is advancing care for patients and communities in Saskatchewan and beyond.

I have attended a number of meetings in the last few weeks focused on our ongoing work in restructuring our biomedical science departments and developing a new biomedical science degree program. I recently attended an excellent lecture in the BMI-PRISM Seminar series, delivered by Dr. Oleg Dmitriev, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology: Tracking the Shapeshifter: Domain Dynamics and Regulation of the Human Copper Transporter ATP7B. The third in this series that I’ve attended, I always find them fascinating and inspiring—even when my basic science knowledge gets pushed past its limits!

Our scientists have taken on the work of implementing significant changes that will benefit our students, college and university. I will share more in this vein, but first want to highlight why these graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty and staff are fundamentally important to our success.

Recently I met with the CoM Graduate Student Society (CMGSS) and our Assistant Dean Graduate Studies, Dr. David Cooper. Now that was a frank discussion! And a healthy reminder to me and all of us that the CoM does a lot more than train doctors. Indeed, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are key drivers of our research enterprise and ultimately a big driver of our reputation. The public expects competent doctors, but to rise in U15 rankings we need outstanding research by biomedical and population health scientists as well as clinician researchers, and for that we need outstanding graduate students and research fellows.

The CoM currently has 196 graduate students in our biomedical sciences, population health and health sciences programs, 80 students in the School of Rehabilitation Science and 41 postdoctoral fellows. We created the position of Assistant Dean Graduate Studies and held the subsequent external reviews of our graduate programs to improve the graduate and postdoctoral experience at the CoM.

Some significant highlights related to this overarching goal include the restructuring of the CoMGRAD Scholarship and CoM-PDF fellowship programs to partner with faculty supervisors to both expand the number and value of the awards available to our research trainees. Advancing our commitments to diversity and inclusivity, the CoMGRAD program now includes targeted awards in the areas of Indigenous Health and Sex and Gender Equality in Research. In this same vein, we have established a Parental Leave Grant to help bridge a gap in support faced by graduate student families. Of course, there is always more to be done and I look forward to ongoing discussions with the CMGSS, which has highlighted the area of learner wellness as a priority.

Eight months ago, the five departments of Anatomy; Physiology; Pharmacology; Biochemistry; and Microbiology and Immunology became two departments: Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology (APP); and Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology (BMI). Dr. Thomas Fisher is the APP interim department head and Dr. Bill Roesler is the BMI interim department head. Currently, searches are underway for permanent heads, and thus I have been to lots of meetings with our biomedical scientists.

APP, BMI and the College of Arts and Science are collaborating on the major initiative of developing a new undergraduate degree program in biomedical sciences. We actually have more than 800 students enrolled in the four current biomedical science degree programs. CoM faculty teach more than half of the classes that follow the foundational classes in areas that include chemistry, physics, biology and math, which are taught by faculty in Arts and Science.

Few people understand the full scope of the work done at the CoM and the critical role of our scientists in preparing students for the health professions (especially medicine, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine) or for graduate work and research careers.

Given the growth in the healthcare industry and the challenges it faces, several other Canadian universities have seen great competitive advantage in focusing on their biomedical science undergraduate programs. They have created new biomedical science degrees that prepare people for professional and graduate school, and industry careers. Thinking creatively and combining these with MBAs, Masters in Health Administration, law degrees, and so on—the possibilities are endless and the opportunities truly exciting!

Early this year I attended APP and BMI meetings where faculty unanimously voted to approve in principle the structure and proposed curricula for the new biomedical science (BMSC) program, in collaboration with the College of Arts and Sciences. The BMSC degree will have four streams with majors in: Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology; Neuroscience (working title); Cellular, Physiological and Pharmacological Sciences (working title); and Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences. These degrees will build on the excellent foundation of our current program with renewed priority on multidisciplinary training and experiential learning.

We have come a long way on this project thanks to the hard work and dedication of many people. Faculty members in both departments, particularly on the two undergraduate committees, have been working to create engaging and innovative new courses and majors.  At the meetings that I attended, there was a strong sense of enthusiasm for the new program that was reflected in the unanimous votes to accept the new programs in principle.  The merged departments are committed to creating and delivering outstanding undergraduate programs that will enhance the teaching and research missions of the College of Medicine.

The project has been led in the CoM by Dr. Scott Napper, supported ably by Dawn Giesbrecht and Sinead McGartland. Our APP and BMI department heads obviously have an important leadership role. And we have had wonderful collaboration with the College of Arts and Science, in particular Alexis Dahl, Director of the Programs Office, and Dr. Gordon DesBrisay, Vice-Dean, Academic.

The work within APP and BMI, and that with Arts and Science, are wonderful demonstrations of interdisciplinarity and collaboration as described in the University Plan 2025. The feedback I hear from our faculty is the mergers to our current APP and BMI departments are going very well; many are seeing the advantages of interdisciplinary work and experiencing great collegiality in these new departments.

On another note of good news, the CoM fared well in the latest round of CIHR project grants with five faculty being successful: Linda Chelico, Humphrey Fonge, Malcolm King and Alexandra King, and Shahid Ahmed. They matched the national success rate and will receive just over $4.8 million in total.

When you hear my elevator speech about our priorities of research, Indigenous health, learner wellness and faculty and staff engagement, I always preface those comments by noting excellence in education at the CoM as a given. As I said, we do a lot more than graduate doctors! That norm of excellence is applied to all of our educational programs and our biomedical scientists are doing outstanding work to ensure their undergraduate and graduate programs meet that standard.

As usual, my door is open and I am always glad to hear your feedback.