Allies in Academia

The University of Toronto has three campuses, boasting enrolment of over 80,000 students. It offers more than 900 undergraduate and graduate programs and courses to suit every intellectual fancy. As the research enterprise of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a teaching hospital fully affiliated with the university, Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) is one of U of T's partners in education.

"It's a big, complex organizational unit," says Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI. In July 2012, he began a five-year term as chair of the university's department of immunology. Two other SRI senior scientists, both in Physical Sciences, also chair U of T departments: Dr. Alan Moody leads medical imaging, Dr. Peter Burns, medical biophysics. Herein, a peek at the paths they are setting.

A New Chapter

At the end of 2012, Moody ended 10 years of service as radiologist-in-chief at Sunnybrook. He also began his five-year term as chair in July, and is in the thick of strategic planning, something all new chairs must do.

As chair of medical imaging, Dr. Alan Moody says translating research into better patient outcomes is a priority.

Photo: Doug Nicholson

Through extensive consultation with faculty (which sits at 173 members), students and alumni, Moody is writing a strategic plan to articulate a vision for the department: how it will look and where it will be in five years.

"It is a good thing to do your soul-searching at the beginning of your term instead of looking back and saying, 'I wish we'd done this.' It's much better to look ahead and say, 'How can we get this done?'"

Research will be a high priority, says Moody. "Our job is to take cutting-edge imaging research into clinical practice. Our aim is to be at the forefront of translational research."

Imaging research involving technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) and ultrasound will aim to invent new ways of diagnosing, treating and preventing disease safely and cost-effectively. "We are fortunate to have access to these powerful technologies in clinical practice, but we're now at a stage where we must step back and examine the best way of using them to improve patient outcomes," says Moody.

Despite the large commitment of time and energy the position entails, Moody says he was pleased to accept responsibility for leading this highly regarded department.

"I was fortunate to be involved with some of the pioneers of CT and MRI who inspired me to follow this specialty. I feel there is now a great opportunity to continue the work they started, as well as to position medical imaging as an integral element of patient management within the health care system," he says.

Connecting the Dots

Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, chair of immunology, wants to strengthen ties among faculty working at the affiliated hospitals.

Photo: Doug Nicholson

It didn't require a lot of arm-twisting for Zúñiga-Pflücker to accept the chair position. "I really love the department," he says. "I have a great appreciation for what it does and what it can do.

"It's a challenging, exciting job. I get to interact with people at the University and [the affiliated hospitals]. This is a more global view of the immunology community in Toronto, which is really quite strong. You see it from a different viewpoint," he says.

Born in Peru, Zúñiga-Pflücker did his scientific training in the U.S. He was recruited to U of T in 1994 by Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at Sunnybrook and SRI, who was then chair of immunology.

He, too, is writing a five-year strategic plan. One of his goals is to strengthen linkages among the 60-plus immunology faculty doing research at the affiliated hospitals, comprising SickKids, University Health Network, St. Michael's, Mount Sinai and Sunnybrook.

Another aim is to boost specific areas within the field. These include fundamental research into the workings of the immune system, and mucosal immunology, specifically, how microbacteria interact with host pathogens in mucosal areas.

While being chair takes him away from the lab somewhat, he notes that his administrative duties do not supplant his science. He says having more senior staff allows his lab to run smoothly by requiring less hands-on oversight on his part.

Zúñiga-Pflücker also says having department chairs at SRI has a beneficial impact on his research and that of his colleagues. "Having these leadership positions here are important; they play a different role in that they unify units that are very broad. Immunology is a broad unit that's city-wide. [Being chair] allows me to connect in a different fashion with the rest of the hospital-based researchers. It adds connectivity and resources to the work we do here."

Second Time's a Charm

Dr. Peter Burns, chair of medical biophysics, aims to uphold the department's culture of multidisciplinary research.

Photo: Doug Nicholson

When Dr. Peter Burns joined the department of medical biophysics more than 20 years ago what impressed him most was the quality of its graduate program. "The graduate students I've met during my time [here] have been the best I've met in my life," he says.

All of our students do work in hospital-based research institutes like SRI.

Now in his second term as chair of the department, Burns says what sets its graduate program apart is the unique way in which students are educated. "All of our students do work in hospital-based research institutes like SRI. We have no students on campus. We don't teach undergraduate courses. We are a university department wholly dedicated to collaborative, translational research," says Burns, who notes there are 80 medical biophysics graduate students training at SRI.

This research, says Burns, takes place in a clinical setting, but is undergirded by the university's promotion of knowledge and learning. "The university provides a wider cultural and academic environment in which SRI scientists participate. That benefits SRI because no single institution is capable of providing all of the resources of fundamental learning and discourse that really drive creative science."

One of his priorities is to uphold the department's culture of multidisciplinary research even as biomedical research becomes more specialized. He says that within the department, scientists in biology and physics don't just co-exist; they collaborate. He points to the groundbreaking discovery of the stem cell by Toronto researchers Dr. Jim Till, a physicist, and Dr. Ernest McCulloch, a clinician and biologist, as an emblem of the potential of this synergistic approach.

Many SRI scientists are graduates of the department—"something we're quite proud of," says Burns. Stepping out of his office on the sixth floor of the research institute's S wing, Burns notes many of his floor mates are medical biophysics alumni.

He says nurturing the next generation of scientists is what he most enjoys in his role. "We have such great young people in our training programs, some of whom are going to do wonderful things in medical science. I look forward very much to seeing what they'll achieve."

— Alisa Kim