Dean Q&A: Dr. Tomaselli on His First Year at Einstein and Plans for the Future

You have been at Einstein a little over a year. Now that you have had a chance to settle in, what has surprised you the most as dean?

It has been a pleasant surprise for me that, despite all of the external pressures, the strengths and values of the college endure. Our science is profound, medical and graduate education is outstanding, and how we treat our patients is driven by the desire to provide compassionate care for all who need it.   

What are your priorities and goals for your tenure?

My goals are to increase the profile of our scientific and educational programs, develop the next generation of faculty leaders at the College of Medicine, further integrate research and educational programs with Montefiore—and raise the money to do all of this.

Einstein achieved degree-granting status earlier this year and is moving toward full accreditation with Middle States. How is that process going? What will change once that process is complete?

I believe the major changes have already occurred, thanks to the current staff and my predecessors at Montefiore and Einstein. We are now independent and have the ability to innovate in the education of medical and graduate students. We also have the freedom to experiment in the educational space and are actively doing that now. For example, we are exploring opportunities for expanded master’s programs in biomedical sciences, investigating how we can infuse engineering in our programs, and of course tracking quality and satisfaction along the way.

In terms of Middle States, we are conducting our required self-study, and we still expect full accreditation in two to three years.

You mentioned integrating engineering into medical education. Has there been any formal advancement in this area or are you planning any?

There have been no formal advances but there have been discussions with a number of partners and department chairs to develop strategies to bring engineering to campus in order to benefit all aspects of our mission. Engineering concepts and fields, such as process thinking and data science, can help elevate our research at all levels and is applicable to education and clinical care. As I’ve said in the past, we aren’t interested in turning our doctors into engineers, but our graduates will need to speak their language. We want to provide them with the knowledge and skills to do just that.

You have also discussed the importance of addressing medical student debt. Are there any plans to address this at Einstein?

We are working with the development team to roll out our alumni challenge for targeted fund-raising to improve the student experience and help offset debt. Of course we already provide all possible opportunities for students to take advantage of scholarships, both inside and outside Einstein, as well as low-cost loans. Our aspiration is that students would incur no debt while they are a student here; so not tuition-free but a debt-free medical school.

Speaking more broadly about the institution, are there any new or planned programs, projects, or initiatives you want to tell us about?

Something that will affect the entire Einstein community is our launching of a new strategic planning process. While we are proud of our long history as a top medical school and biomedical research institution, we cannot be complacent. We will take a top-to-bottom look at everything at Einstein—our research, education, and administrative processes and priorities—to establish a strategic plan for the coming years. We are looking for input from everyone—faculty, students, staff, donors, and other supporters—and are interested in their thoughts on how to best advance the institution.

I’ve already identified the steering committee members, and we’ll be hosting a day-long retreat in November to receive input from across campus and all our stakeholders. We will also host town halls and other ways for community members to participate. I expect to finalize the plan next spring and look forward to working with everyone to make it a success.

As part of that process, do you expect to recruit new faculty in the basic science departments?

Yes, we will recruit new departmental leaders and faculty, and indeed this is actively proceeding with several basic, clinical, and population science recruits in neuroscience, biochemistry, for PRIME (Psychiatry Research Institute at Montefiore Einstein), and other centers and departments. We are also embarking on a strategic planning process to review and refine the areas that we wish to build.

There are some recent and planned changes in chairs and center directors—in pediatrics, the Albert Einstein Cancer Center, and otorhinolaryngology. What are you hoping these new recruits will bring to Einstein and Montefiore?

We have recruited a new chair of pediatrics and are still in the process of searching for the new chair of otorhinolaryngology and new director for Albert Einstein Cancer Center. As clinical chairs, we have high expectations that they and their teams will excel in all mission areas: oversight of peerless patient care, leadership in undergraduate and graduate medical education, and dedication to robust translational research programs.

You said one of your priorities as dean was to oversee Einstein’s further integration with Montefiore. Are there any changes over the past year or on the horizon that are worth noting?

Yes. The new cancer center director will lead a comprehensive program including medical, surgical, and radiation oncology research that will further integrate the programmatic strengths of Einstein and Montefiore. There are programs in neuroscience, psychiatry, substance abuse, diabetes and metabolism, immunology, and transplantation that will serve as bridges for deeper integration.

Have you been able to continue your own research?

I have not been able to move my lab to Einstein, but I am still working on my science with my long-term collaborators at Johns Hopkins. If possible, I would love to have a lab here. But even if that does not happen, I will remain engaged with the marvelous science going on at Einstein.

You just traveled to South Africa. Any highlights you’d like to share?

We were lucky to have the opportunity to visit South Africa with our youngest child, who was taking a course there. The country is spectacular—from the bush to the coast—and the people were wonderful. Our time on safari was quite spectacular. Walking in the bush midday was only mildly anxiety provoking. We finished up in Cape Town, one of the truly breathtaking cities in the world.

However, we were reminded of the challenges that face the country in our first few days visiting townships around Johannesburg, particularly Soweto. In the shadow of a vibrant, modern city, there are far too many South Africans who live in desperate circumstances. Though no longer codified in law, the remnants of apartheid are apparent in South Africa and will take a concerted effort and investment over generations to rectify.

How have you been adjusting to life in New York?

I really enjoy being back in New York City. Baltimore is a great town but there is nothing like NYC. Our family in Baltimore is quite fond of New York, and we hope to have them visit often.

Have you been able to make it to any Yankee games?

Only one, but more are in the works. My son and I are Yankee fans but the rest of my family prefers the O’s [the Orioles, Baltimore’s team].

Do you have any favorite Bronx restaurants?

I have always had a soft spot for Arthur Avenue—Roberto’s, Zero Otto Nove, Dominick’s, Mario’s. As a student, I would go there to get my grandmother baccala against her cardiologist’s advice. After my medicine clerkship I was able to advise her to double up on her Lasix. She lived to the ripe old age of 96, so I do not think this sinful pleasure hurt much.