December 07, 2021

Becoming Heersink Part 1: The path to being named

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becoming heersink final resizeIn September, our medical school was named due to a generous and historical gift of $95 million from the Heersink family. This gift will help advance strategic growth, our global footprint, and new discovery in biomedical innovation. It will help us pursue excellence in each mission area in several ways.

As we embrace our new name—the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine—our faculty, staff, trainees, and students may wonder: How does this naming impact our future? What is the significance of this gift for research, patient care, and medical education? How does it impact the lives of staff, faculty, trainees, and students? What does it mean for future recruits?

The Heersink School of Medicine communications team sat down with some of our school’s top leaders to learn more about the naming, why it’s important now and in the future, and what we can expect in our top three mission areas. In this three-part series, hear from four members of Dean Selwyn M. Vickers’ leadership team on how the gift will shape the school.

In Part 1 of “Becoming Heersink,” we consider the path to being named and how it aligns with the school’s strategic growth.

The vision of being named

Three years ago, the Dean’s Leadership Team created a strategic plan outlining the school’s growth and the tactics to achieve such growth at an off-site retreat. Here, a major priority of naming the school was created. “In a short amount of time, just three years, we were able to reach our goal,” said Anupam Agarwal, M.D., executive vice dean in the Heersink School of Medicine. “It was part of our strategy for growth.”

From the beginning, it was important to top leaders in the school to build ethics and values into the strategy of receiving a monetary gift sizable enough to name the school. They wanted to find the right donor—not just any donor—and were very cautious about who to approach.

“Dr. Vickers wanted to seek out a donor aligned with our school’s vision and goals—someone who knew the unique issues of health care, health equity, and barriers in the state of Alabama,” Agarwal explained.

Senior Associate Dean of Medical Education Craig Hoesley, M.D., agreed: “Being named was a goal of the school, but it was not taken lightly. It was a very thoughtful process.”

A shared ambition

While it was a major goal of Dean Vickers and his leadership team to be named, it was simultaneously a goal of Marnix E. Heersink, M.D., his wife Mary, and their family, to invest in a medical school.

As Vickers said in his November Dean’s message, “The generous pledge was a strategic decision made by Heersink. His ambition has been to invest in a medical school with a rising success rate in scientific discovery, medical training, and clinical care.” And our medical school at UAB is just that. Our school has experienced rapid growth in the past five years, particularly in funding and research dollars.

Get to know the Heersinks

Several leaders explain that the Heersinks are like family to our medical school. “The Heersinks have been engaged in our Board of Visitors and have been generous to the school—specifically around infrastructure needs,” said Hoesley. Previous gifts and pledges include those to renovate the atrium in Volker Hall and to establish the Heersink Family Active Learning Resource Center in Volker. They also have several named fellowships and funds in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and in the School of Optometry. “It’s been clear to us for many years that the Heersinks are passionate about our medical school and our students. They are fully aligned with what our mission is and what we want to do for the state.”

The Heersinks are long-standing citizens of Alabama. Currently residing in Dothan, Ala., Heersink practices cataract and laser refractive surgery. He is co-owner and chairman of Eye Center South which has 12 offices in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

The Heersinks have a lengthy history at UAB and are well-invested in our programs. Daughter Mila is an ophthalmologist and a UAB School of Medicine graduate. Son Damion graduated from the UAB School of Public Health in 2005. He obtained his medical degree and is now in Internal Medicine residency. Son Bayne is a dentist who graduated from the UAB School of Dentistry, including a two-year UAB prosthodontic fellowship; and twins Christiaan and Marius who both participated in the Early Medical School Acceptance Program (EMSAP) and obtained a combined M.D./MBA degree from UAB and are in Ophthalmology and Family Medicine residencies, respectively. Plus, the Heersinks’ daughter-in-law Juanita Titrud Heersink, M.D., graduated from the UAB School of Medicine and completed her Internal Medicine residency at UAB.

The Heersink family has invested their education, time, and money into our medical program for a long while. “I don’t think we could have picked a better group to approach about naming the school,” said Hoesley.

The impact on our community

Many of the school’s top leaders say the gift will have a domino effect on our surrounding community and the state at large. The Heersinks and the school’s top leadership are community-minded, enterprising, and inventive.

While the gift will strengthen and augment our strategic goals, “it is also going to be a driver for the economic engine of UAB—and by extension Birmingham and the entire state of Alabama,” said Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research. The alignment creates a synergy that will ultimately impact employees and patients alike, albeit indirectly at first.

“This will lift all levels of talent,” said Agarwal. “We may not all see a direct benefit, but it impacts the whole.”

Benveniste added, “The gift is important because of the recognition and endorsement. There is an entity (the Heersinks) who has seen the value of our mission and that entity is willing to support our missions financially.” It’s a major pride point and ownership for faculty, students, trainees, and staff.

Moving ahead as the Heersink School of Medicine

This gift signifies individual growth and opportunity. It will allow us to grow in each mission area, while creating a downstream effect on economic development and job creation around Alabama.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of our series that will outline what the gift means for us now and for our future.