Medical School’s new dean values research, innovation

Dylan Thomas

Growing up in outstate Massachusetts, Deborah Powell made the long trip to Boston by bus and train to volunteer at the hospital at which her uncle, a neurosurgeon, worked.

Those early experiences in a hospital showed Powell how medicine joined her interest in science and her desire to help people. Even though her uncle always thought she would become a nurse, Powell eventually became a doctor.

Years later, Powell’s career led her from the East Coast to the South, and finally to Minnesota, where she took over as dean of the University’s Medical School on Oct. 14.

Powell’s soft voice has hints of both East Coast and Southern accents, evidence of the time she spent as a faculty member and administrator at universities in both Kentucky and Kansas, experience that made her an attractive candidate to the dean search committee.

Roby Thompson, co-chair of the search committee, said, “I think it’s the warmth of her personality or her experience as an educator” that made Powell stick out from the 15 other candidates who interviewed for the position.

Powell had been the dean of the medical school at the University of Kansas since 1997, but she couldn’t resist the opportunities offered by a larger school, she said.

“This is a much bigger university and there are some things about it that I really like. It’s a much more research-intensive university, and to me that’s always been very important,” Powell said.

In fact, one of Powell’s main goals as dean is to help the Medical School achieve its potential as a top research school. To do that, she plans to “move the research agenda forward very aggressively.”

Powell said the University has “a medical school that wants to be in the top 20 research medical schools in the country” and she thinks it can be.

Another of Powell’s main goals is to make the school more innovative in medical education, addressing issues that will face health care in the 21st century.

They include educating medical students to be able to communicate with a broad spectrum of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Powell also said she wants students to understand the different systems in health care and how they are accessed by patients.

A third area of focus is teaching students to access up-to-date medical knowledge.

“We have to change, I think, the way we educate medical students,” Powell said. “We can’t spend all our time just trying to give them knowledge that is going to be out of date in a very short period of time.

“We have to spend a lot more time making sure they’re sophisticated in accessing knowledge quickly and efficiently.”

Medical school economics

powell also stressed the importance of bringing the school’s medical research into the realm of clinical practice and retaining top notch research faculty – both of which she said require a strong infrastructure.

Powell said key to putting medical school research into practice is the proposed Translational Research Facility, which would create stronger ties between business and the University. Construction plans for the building were stalled when Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed the project from the University’s capital budget request this spring.

New buildings and equipment are also important for attracting and retaining top researchers, Powell said.

“We are very fortunate to have a nucleus of people. The danger is always in keeping those people,” she said. “Our challenge is going to be to keep the really strong leaders in science that we have, and recruiting new ones who will be the next generation of leaders.”

The school has already identified several areas of focused research, including neuroscience, infectious disease and cardiovascular medicine. Powell said she hopes to continue the recruitment of “top notch” faculty, especially in these areas.

Although Powell recognizes the financial strains on the University stemming from the current economic slump, she also said she believes that research at the University and strong ties with business can be of great economic benefit to the state.

“What we have to do is use Ö our financial resources wisely to recruit faculty in these areas that have been targeted to really expand and develop our research program,” Powell said.

Search committee members made sure that they were recruiting someone who had a strong understanding of the economics involved in running a major research institution.

“President Yudof, when he spoke to our search committee, said, ‘Don’t bring me someone whose biggest financial job they’ve done is balance their grocery budget,’ ” Thompson said.

Long road to U

powell trained in internal medicine while at Georgetown University’s medical school. However, expecting her first child shortly after graduation, she ended up completing a year of pathology work and enjoyed it so much she became a surgical pathologist.

After a research year at the National Institutes of Health, Powell returned to Georgetown as a faculty member. Later, she moved to Lexington, Ky., and was a faculty member at the University of Kentucky for more than 20 years. She eventually became chair of the school’s department of pathology.

In 1997, Powell became dean of the medical school at the University of Kansas.

Powell said she taught a little at Kansas and quite a bit at Kentucky and hopes to teach pathology here at the University.

“I love teaching medical students, so I want to do more of that,” Powell said.

One thing that drew Powell to Minnesota was that one of her sons graduated from the University’s Medical School and is in the midst of his residency here.

Although Powell is glad to be near her son’s family and her 3-year-old grandson, she was also attracted to the University because of its potential for advancement.

“This school has an amazing history. So many fundamental events in American medicine happened here,” Powell said.

“Minnesota is poised to do some very wonderful things. So I think it is a very important time in the history of the medical school.”


Dylan Thomas welcomes comments at [email protected]