Jakub Tolar, M.D., Ph.D., is dean of the Medical School and interim vice president for Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota. We talked with him recently about his top priorities in his first year as dean, the biggest challenge facing medical schools today and why donors are crucial to the future of research.
Minneapolis Foundation: You’re about halfway into your first year as dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School. As you delve into this new role, what are your top priorities?
Dr. Tolar: My top priority is to give everyone in the Medical School a clear idea of our mission and vision, so that we know what we’re working toward. First, as part of a land-grant University, we have a deep responsibility for improving health and health care for all Minnesotans. We need to provide excellent medical care to the community we serve. Second, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students are receiving the best medical and scientific education, so that they are prepared to be compassionate, curious, and highly skilled physicians and scientists. And third, as a research institution, we need to improve the standard of care for all patients.
Minneapolis Foundation: When you consider the Medical School’s current standing in the arenas of research, education, and clinical care, what do you see as its greatest strength? Its greatest opportunity?
Dr. Tolar: In my opinion, the greatest strength of the Medical School is the expertise of our faculty and the ability we have to create team-driven science and medicine. We can combine strengths from across the University and focus them on health care problems. Similarly, we can collaborate across disciplines to research new ideas and new directions. You can see this in our history of innovation in everything from the combination of electronics and cardiology to develop the first implantable pacemaker, to the combination of immunology and oncology to develop the first successful unrelated bone marrow transplant.
Our greatest opportunity continues to be our ability to innovate and drive change in the medical field, whether in developing new therapies, innovating educational strategies, or defining new methods to improve clinical practice.
Minneapolis Foundation: Name one medical innovation developed at the University of Minnesota in recent years that has had a significant impact on patients’ lives. Why was it groundbreaking, and how is it helping people?
Dr. Tolar: A great example of an innovation here at the University is the development of TALENs, a gene-editing technology that evolved from plant biology, cellular biology, and medicine combined. Originally used to modify crops, it is being tested as a way to perform gene therapy for patients with what are currently fatal genetic disorders. The fact that we have this ability to move discoveries across disciplines is one of the University’s key strengths.
Minneapolis Foundation: Name one project going on right now at the Medical School that you believe has extraordinary potential.
Dr. Tolar: The state Legislature and the University came together in a plan to develop research programs on health care challenges that are significant to Minnesota. As a result, we have created four Medical Discovery Teams that combine our strengths with expertise gathered from across the country to focus on the challenges of addiction, rural and American Indian health, brain imaging, and the biology of aging. These teams approach the problems with expertise from many different areas.
Minneapolis Foundation: Aside from funding, what’s the biggest challenge facing medical schools today, and what can the University of Minnesota do to face that challenge?
Dr. Tolar: Health care is undergoing huge changes. Medical schools everywhere have to continually update our way of thinking to keep up with changes in science, changes in the marketplace, and changes needed in how we educate our future workforce. The University has the advantage of being part of a community of experts on everything from public health to business to the arts. We can combine this diversity to develop new and better strategies to pursue our mission and keep up in this time of change.
Minneapolis Foundation: What’s one thing that donors should know about supporting medical research at the University of Minnesota?
Dr. Tolar: Research involves the element of serendipity, which in turn depends a great deal on proximity. What we are seeing here is that the research of the future depends on bridging seemingly unrelated disciplines and bringing together experts from many fields, things that the University of Minnesota is excellently equipped to do. For example, a cancer treatment pioneered by University veterinary scientists in dogs shows promise in human patients as well. Another example is the recent separation of conjoined twins whose hearts were intertwined. Imaging technology developed by engineers at the University made this breakthrough surgery possible.
Donors have the ability to see possibilities and meet changing research needs much faster than any other source of funding. They bring the crucial flexibility that allows collaborative ideas to ignite and move forward in new directions. If successful, these ideas can then attract federal or other funding to continue. In a way, donors bring the spark of outside vision and creativity through what they choose to fund.
Many of The Minneapolis Foundation’s donors are passionate about health and medicine. In the past five years alone, we have granted more than $1 million to health care and medical research at the University of Minnesota. Learn more about how you can support the University’s work here.