By: Katharine Cimmino, Editor-in-Chief and Erica Dimitropoulos, Senior Staff Editor
Just last month, St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences kindly welcomed a new Dean into our family, Dean Russell J. DiGate. Dean DiGate is a highly experienced educator and academic leader. He attended the University of Rochester, where he earned a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Biology. He was formally the Provost of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, the Dean of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, and a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Dean DiGate is also a researcher, an internationally recognized expert in the field of topoisomerases and DNA replication. Now, he is back to his hometown of New York to serve as our Dean in Queens, with a new set of objectives. Dean DiGate was particularly attracted to our school for two main reasons: its Vincentian mission, and the fact that we are a college that encompasses all health sciences, not just pharmacy. Therefore, he aims to lead a college that embodies altruistic values and promotes top of the line healthcare. Our interview with him further elucidated his goals and plans to carry out the mission of both our College and University.
You have had a tremendous amount of experience with higher education. What made you decide to take another position as a Dean of a pharmacy school?
My situation of acting as Provost was very similar to Dr. Mangione’s experience here at St. John’s University. I was asked to move from the position of Dean to the Provost of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. As provost, your goal is to implement the overall academic strategy of the university. Your job is to be the liaison between the faculty and the board of trustees. Yet what I missed the most during my tenure as Provost were the interactions with students, faculty, and alumni. I have always found the dean’s position to be much more fun and diverse. Given the opportunity, I decided to go back to something that I greatly enjoyed.
As I learned more about St. John’s University and the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, there were a couple of things that really attracted me to this school. Primarily, I was drawn to the Vincentian mission, with the desire to understand the roots and causes of poverty and the desire to help people out of that situation. From a moral and ethical standpoint, this is a very altruistic and wonderful mission. From a structural standpoint, I also liked that our school is not only a College of Pharmacy, but also of Health Sciences. In many institutions, programs such as Physician’s Assistant, Radiologic Science, and Clinical Lab Sciences, are contained within a separate College of Allied Health or Health Sciences. Here at St. John’s University, everything is placed under one roof. This allows for much better control of programs, interdisciplinary training, and enables us to reach our goals together as a team of healthcare professionals.
From a personal perspective, I was born and raised on the Eastern tip of Long Island and I love the fact that I am back in New York. I originally left because there wasn’t much to do then in terms of science, since there were few science intensive universities. Therefore, I had to go to college elsewhere to study and perform molecular biology research.
Over the course of the last 20-25 years, the landscape has changed dramatically and all in all, from both a job and personal perspective, St. John’s University seems like a perfect fit.
What brought you into academia? Throughout your life, you have worked in numerous labs. What made you decide to go towards the academic route?
Basically, everyone who goes to graduate school figures out during the course of their study if they’re going to enter research or academia. It is a personal choice, and I was always on the academic path. There is no better feeling then teaching someone and seeing them get it. You can’t really describe the feeling of satisfaction when this happens, and it’s important to do what you love.
Do you still get to work in labs and research?
The explosion of knowledge is continually expanding. As I went through my education, my interest in science became much more focused until I was only looking at topoisomerases in DNA replication. Much more attention has to be placed on an increasingly narrow field of study. The assignment of additional administrative duties, especially at the level of Dean and higher, makes it impossible to fit everything you want to do within the day. You can look at my schedule and see that I have meetings all day long. So when do you have time to do your research and teach your graduate students and post-doctoral fellows? When you do go home all you do have time to do is have dinner and maybe watch an episode of the “Big Bang Theory.”
When you choose an administrative route, you realize that you don’t have the time to do your own research. You shift your focus and gain satisfaction by developing a support system so that others can be successful in their own research. I live vicariously through others. The joy that I get is not that I personally get these grants, but that the organization and the people within it are successful. My job is to promote the success of everyone that is in the program: faculty and students. Do I miss doing research? Absolutely. I still have what they call great “lab hands.” There are people that can walk into a lab and perform the same exact experiment side by side with another person- it works for one and not the other. For whatever reason, and I don’t know why, it works for me. There is nothing more fun than going into a lab and having something work. But you mature in your position and you change what you get satisfaction from.
You have published in several journals including Nature, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Molecular Cell. What advice can you give to people who want to go into research or publishing?
The sooner you can get into a lab and start doing things, the better off you will be- you need to find out early on if you have the bug. If you have the bug, then you can start planning on what you need to do to further your career. As an undergraduate, you just take in everything you can from your mentors. You have a built-in network from each person you get to know and as you get older, your network expands because of your fellow graduate students. Now I have buddies who I went to graduate school with who are at the top of their game and their fields in science. When you meet someone new, you can’t be shy. You have to go up and introduce yourself. Do your preliminary research and find other professors who are publishing in good journals. Later on in your education, use your mentor to figure out where the best labs with the best scientists are. You want to find who is the up-and-coming expert- the next Nobel Laureate or National Academy member- and work in those labs. More than anything, you need to be in a program with a high degree of sophistication that can provide these types of resources to you, and you need to make the best of these resources in every way possible.
Do you plan on expanding the amount of grants and contracts that St. John’s University receives? If so, how?
I am going to try and expand our grants. It is not a difficult thing to do, but it requires perseverance. There are tried and true methods to increase grant productivity. It starts from the recruitment of competitive junior faculty. The pool of people who need and want jobs is huge. You need to recruit faculty that have been trained in good labs who know science and how to do it. You also have to understand what it means to be a St. John’s faculty member- you need to be a scholar AND an excellent teacher. I always instruct the search committee to get me a person that does both. I don’t want a person who does research but doesn’t interact with anyone. They can put out a million papers, but if they don’t teach and mentor the students that are here, it is unproductive. Alternatively, a person who is an excellent teacher but does no scholarly activity will not move the research agenda of the University forward either. I won’t sign off on hiring anyone until they show me that they can do both.
When you do that, all of a sudden things start moving into place. The institution has to move forward. Do I want to increase the scholarship here? Absolutely. But my job is to make sure I have the resources to do that. If that means that we only bring in one person a year and do it right, then I would rather do that.
How do you plan on advancing the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences?
I would like to broaden the number of health sciences that we have. Over the course of the next few years, I would like to see if it makes sense from a programmatic and fiscal sense to start something like Physical Therapy and/or Occupational Therapy. It would be nice to have a full array of healthcare professionals available to students. Also, it takes pressure off of some of the other programs, such as Physicians Assistant and Pharmacy, for enrollment. Before we do this, however, we need to make sure that all of our healthcare programs far exceed the standards of their respective accrediting bodies and ensure that they are both cutting edge and looking to the future.
Nowadays many people want to expand their certification. What do you think of joint PharmD/MBA or JD option?
Those programs are needed and should be done, but there is also a reality to it. Every pharmacy school that I have been affiliated with has offered combined degrees. From a professional point of view it is a smart move. PharmD/MBA is great for a community setting with the business access. A PharmD/MPH can be very attractive in terms of public policy. The PharmD/JD can allow you to implement policy and law related to drugs and therapies. Overall, they are well worth doing, but the enrollment in those programs tends to be low. Students in a PharmD or other healthcare program already have a large debt burden upon graduation. Most students therefore choose to go out and and work, lower their debt, and consider obtaining another degree later. The reality is such that if you make that decision, the odds of you coming back are very slim. You get out and life happens. However, some people consider higher education while waiting for the job market to open. They are all great programs and I think we should make them available. Most of the joint programs that I know of are structured so that some of the JD, MBA, or MPH courses are taken as electives while in a healthcare professional program, ultimately cutting down on the time it takes to finish the degrees. In our program here, there is virtually no room to do this. We are looking at ways to generate some room in the PharmD program to allow for a competitive degree. Right now, however, it is simply an add-on; there is no savings in terms of time. Unfortunately, I don’t know if people are going to be willing to commit to the time with the way things are currently configured, but in the future these joint degrees may be very appealing to our student body.
What are your plans for the College of Pharmacy? Do you see making changes to allow for joint programs? Are their going to be any general changes to the PharmD program?
Every five years or so, you need to take a step back and reevaluate the curriculum. The profession and emphasis have changed, technology has changed, and what students have to master has shifted in different directions. It’s time to do that with our PharmD program here at St. John’s University. There are courses in the curriculum trying to do more than one thing at a time. When that happens you get the worse of both. We need to make the curriculum cutting-edge and focus on designing a program that is capable of giving the students what they need to go out and practice. Courses early in the curriculum should be teaching fundamentals, and that should lead into what they call translational-type of activities, where you integrate information. You still continue to learn, but now you take what you have learned and apply it to a higher order of learning, where you take principles and integrate them into critical thinking. Next is the actual practice of material. But when you have a confined and accelerated program, everything starts to get mixed. From a pedagogical point of view, it is not the best way to learn. You need to know the fundamentals such as pharmacology, toxicology, and medicinal chemistry early on. Then in therapeutics, you need to know how those fundamentals relate to the therapeutic decision-making and how everything gets implemented into decision-making. You cannot make a decision and apply knowledge without truly learning the basics first.
You said you want to be “visible” to the student body. How do you plan on doing that? What’s your vision for the student body?
In order to move our college forward, we have to be visible to many different constituents- the external world, the faculty, and the students. By far the most important part to me is visibility to the students. The students are the recipients of our healthcare curriculum and our educational philosophy. They are our greatest ambassadors and advocates to the outside world and their influence increases exponentially each year. It is my job to make sure that I am not only visible to the students as the leader of the college, but that I make the college and its processes visible to them so that they can understand, participate, and advocate for the changes that will inevitably come in healthcare education. Functionally, this means that we must include students in the creation of their own curriculum. They must become active participants in their own education and take responsibility for it. In this way, teachers and students alike will be stakeholders in the process.