Campus & Community

HMS Dean Flier hails new, cooperative era in Harvard science

4 min read

Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier said Friday (Nov. 2) that new approaches are needed to advance the fight against disease and embraced cross-institutional collaborations at Harvard as a way to bring new thinking to old problems.

Flier, the keynote speaker at the Fourth Annual Tony and Shelly Malkin Stem Cell Symposium at the Harvard Club of Boston, said he has spent a lot of time in his first months as Harvard Medical School dean thinking about how and why the School does business. As he has gone through this process, Flier said, he’s given thought to who people mean when they speak of “we” at the Medical School.

His conclusion, he said, is that “we” means different things to different people, depending on where they work. Faculty based at the School mean a different group of people when they say “we” than those who are based at affiliated hospitals. Educators mean it differently depending on whether they’re teaching clinical or preclinical classes, and the rest of the University means it differently depending on where they are based and what they’re doing.

How “we” is viewed across the University, he said, is a product of the barriers that exist in Harvard’s far-flung enterprise.

“Why aren’t we working better together? That’s the question I would ask,” Flier said.

The all-day symposium highlighted the work of several researchers focused on stem cells and different types of cancer, including leukemia, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and brain cancer. Among those speaking were John E. Dick and Peter Dirks of the University of Toronto; Scott Armstrong of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and of Children’s Hospital Boston; Owen White of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute of Stem Cell Biology; and Kornelia Polyak of Dana-Farber.

The day featured comments by Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) co-directors Douglas Melton and David Scadden, and by HSCI Executive Director Brock Reeve. It also featured poster presentations of other related research. Jerome Ritz of Dana-Farber, a member of HSCI’s Executive Committee, and Gary Gilliland of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the HSCI Cancer Program leader, moderated the event.

Flier said that many kinds of barriers divide people at Harvard. Organizational barriers exist among Harvard’s different Schools, among Schools and hospitals, and even among different departments within Schools. Financial barriers are brought about by scarce funding, by restrictions on fund usage, and by how funds flow from one organization to another. Cultural barriers exist between organizations that are stable versus those that change rapidly, between researchers working alone versus those who are in teams, and due to notions of what it means to conduct basic versus applied research — a distinction that Flier said causes much confusion.

“We need to think differently about these terms,” Flier said.

Flier pointed out that efforts are already under way to break down barriers. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is an example of an interfaculty initiative created as a way to bring faculty from a variety of institutions to lend their expertise to a particular problem.

He also cited the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee, created to guide science and engineering across the University, as a new way to foster collaboration.

Similarly, Flier said, the new Department of Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology, a joint department of Harvard Medical School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is an example of new organizational thinking that is getting experts from varied fields working together.

Harvard’s Allston development provides an enormous opportunity to foster collaboration and is getting started with a new science complex that will house the Stem Cell Institute.

“People across the University are working together to get therapies,” Flier said. “The Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology are real living examples of how Harvard sees the future of science and medicine.”