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March 2021 Dean's Letter

It’s been just over a year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in New York City.  Although that specific day—March 1, 2020—may not carry the same significance for all of us, I’m sure that each of you recalls the moments when you realized that life was being rapidly and completely transformed by the coronavirus.  For me, that occurred very early in March, as meetings and classes became virtual and longstanding travel plans were cancelled.

Since then, the pandemic has had an overwhelming impact – cutting short the lives of more than 535,000 Americans to date, throwing our economy into crisis, disproportionately hitting communities of color, and altering our daily activities and interactions.  It’s been a time of enormous challenge.  Throughout it all, our students, faculty, staff, and leadership have demonstrated incredible strength and resilience.  Thank you so much for your commitment to our patients, our mission, and our community.

With a new presidential administration working to bring the virus under control and increasing numbers of people receiving vaccines, we are optimistic that the tide is turning.  At Weill Cornell Medicine, we are eager for post-pandemic life and ready to implement our institutional vision for the next decade, or what we call Strategic Plan 4 (SP4), with renewed vigor.  Shortly before COVID-19 struck, we were gaining momentum and achieving major objectives in education, including a new debt-free scholarship program for medical students and the opening of the Feil Family Student Center.

Now our focus will expand to include the ongoing growth of our research enterprise.  In the past five years, our funding from the National Institutes of Health has grown by 56%, and the number of faculty principal investigators has increased by 32%.  By further strengthening our base of expertise across the fundamental sciences, translational investigation, and especially clinical research, we can accelerate the development of new therapies and treatments to benefit our patients.  As we have seen with safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines developed in record time, scientific collaboration and clinical trials have immense potential to benefit human health.  Our goal is to increase interactions among our investigators and between clinicians and scientists, so that we remain at the forefront of innovation in biomedical research and patient care.

You’ll hear more about our plans this spring when we launch a comprehensive fundraising campaign for Weill Cornell Medicine, as part of an overall Cornell University campaign.  I’m very excited about this new phase for our institution and look forward to sharing more details in the coming months.  In the meantime, I’d like to highlight two new initiatives that are enabling us to increase educational opportunities for our students and enhance the academic excellence of our faculty.

Starting in the fall of 2021, the Weill Cornell Graduate School (WCGS) will be expanding its PhD program in Physiology, Biophysics, and Systems Biology to a new site at Houston Methodist.  Students and WCGS faculty based in Houston will engage in WCGS’ curriculum via remote programming, with visits to New York City for program retreats and graduate school events, and with thesis research undertaken at Houston Methodist. In turn, students and faculty based in New York City will benefit from Houston Methodist’s expertise and state-of-the-art facilities and technology for their own research. This collaboration, which builds on a 16-year academic affiliation between our institutions, will enrich the experience of students and faculty at both locations and promote scientific interactions.

A generous $5 million gift from Mastercard will fund a suite of innovative programs to foster and sustain a more diverse faculty.  The Diversity-Mentorship Collaborative initiative, which aims to be operational by the fall, will include a mentoring curriculum, an incentive program to support the recruitment of faculty from underrepresented in medicine (URM) populations, a pilot grant program for URM faculty with promising research projects, and a program to provide research assistance to faculty who are primary caregivers for a child.  This initiative will help us advance in our mission of promoting greater diversity and inclusion in medicine, and it will move us toward our goal of establishing an infrastructure of mentorship to support all our research faculty.

Amid the upheaval of the past year, Weill Cornell Medicine is continuing to prepare the next generation of leaders in healthcare and biomedical science and taking steps toward a more equitable and inclusive society.  There is still much work for us to do, and I am proud of the progress we are making together, as we strive to bring the virus firmly under control.

I wish you a healthy, pleasant, and productive spring.

Sincerely,

Augustine M.K. Choi, MD

Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean
Weill Cornell Medicine
Provost for Medical Affairs
Cornell University