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December 13, 2021

Becoming Heersink Part 2: Welcoming a new chapter

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becoming heersink part 2This month, the UAB Heersink School of Medicine communications team sat down with a few of our school’s top leaders to learn about the significance of being named. In September, we became the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine. In Part 1 of our series, “The path to being named,” we spoke with Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research, Anupam Agarwal, M.D., executive vice dean, and Craig Hoesley, M.D., senior associate dean for Medical Education, on how our school became named and how the naming aligns with our school’s key values and goals.

In Part 2, we discuss why this generous and historical gift of $95 million from the Heersink family is important today and what it means for our mission areas right now.

Why give to UAB’s medical school and why now?

UAB’s medical school is relatively new and young compared to several other colleges and schools around the country. What prompted Dr. Heersink to give to UAB specifically? It has been noted that Heersink made a strategic decision to invest in a school of growth and opportunity—a place to invest in the future of medicine. Helping other people and communities are major drivers for the Heersink family. Investing in UAB’s highly productive centers, institutes, departments, and units align with the Heersinks’ values of building a better society. So why give now?

Our focus on growth

In spite of our young spirit and maybe because of it, our Academic Medical Center (AMC) has seen tremendous growth in the past five years, raising our NIH portfolio to new heights and securing more funds from donors in the history of our school.

Under the leadership of Dean Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., the school’s vision and goals have been pursued with meticulous focus. Vickers’ tenure as dean has continuously illustrated the importance of putting people first, a tactic that has, in return, yielded great results in every other key area in the school such as increasing philanthropic support, new revenue for excellent patient care, increasing bench to bedside discoveries, and continuing to cultivate overall quality in each mission area.

A collaborative environment

In addition to growth, we are building a national reputation of interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches in our research and patient care. Our employees, trainees, and students embody purpose and progress, traits fueled by curiosity and innovation.

Anupam Agarwal, M.D., executive vice dean, and Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research, testify that UAB’s approach to collaboration is unique and distinctive. “There is no barrier to collaborate in cross disciplines at UAB,” said Agarwal. As we advance, this defining characteristic is important to distinguish us from other AMCs.

Similarly, Tony Jones, M.D., chief physician executive and senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs, explained that our differentiating factors make us unique: “We’re in a very unique state—we are the main AMC in Alabama. We don’t have to compete with other AMCs in our own geographical area. This gives us the freedom to ask: what uniqueness does our environment create, and then be cognizant of those attributes.”

The intellectual milieu

Jones described the medical environment at UAB as an “intellectual milieu,” a hub buzzing with creative scientific and medical thought. “The intellectual milieu of an AMC feeds the creative energy of clinicians and clinician-scientists who are prone to ask ‘why,’” he said.

Clinician-scientists bring an “inquisitive nature, challenge dogma, and discovery new things.” Clinicians who work at an AMC participate in advancing knowledge, science, and treatment with a team.

In addition to the geographic location, unique collaboration, and focus on growth at our AMC, the currently flourishing intellectual milieu certainly contributes to the timing of the Heersink gift.

Next and first steps

Now that the gift has been established, there are a few things we know for sure about the dollars. To start, the Heersink gift will be used to fund recruitment and retention efforts of the brightest and most talented physicians and scientists in the world, which includes creating endowments for professorships and chairs. The gift will also establish new institutes such as the Marnix E. Heersink Institute of Biomedical Innovation and the Mary Heersink Institute for Global Health.

Plans are still being made for other specific use of the Heersink gift, but we know that our vision and values will drive each dollar as we move ahead. “We can make sure we focus on our core values as we move forward,” Jones said.

In the same way, accountability is a key importance to the Dean’s Leadership Team. “Stewardship of these resources is important,” said Benveniste. “We will expect accountability from faculty who hold endowments and their department chair, and metrics will be used to set the endowments up for success. We are so appreciative of these resources and we will be good stewards of them.”

Committees have already been established to ensure accountability. Along with LaKisha Mack, MBA, senior associate dean for Administration and Finance, Benveniste and Agarwal have a committee to review nominations for Heersink endowments, which will be awarded to new recruits and existing faculty. Anyone with an endowment will go through a review process, and leadership “will have significant oversight to ensure that the intent of the donors are being met”, Agarwal noted.

“We have a long-time ambitious goal of recruiting over 100 new faculty which will enhance our research portfolio and scholarly achievements in the school, and the Heersink endowments will be a tremendous asset for recruitment” said Benveniste.

In medical education, teams are working with the newly-established institutes to develop programs around global health and biomedicine. These institutes offer increased opportunity for students in clinical experiences and in engaging with scholarly work.

Visualizing a bright future

Jones said the Heersink gift is inspiring now because of the excitement it brings for the future. “This financial contribution is going to first and foremost attract clinicians, clinician-scientists and scientists who will be very engaged in asking and answering questions, like ‘what does excellence look like?’”

The financial contribution gives us the monetary means to recruit, but it also builds on our reputation nationally and within the medical community. “It gives a signal that this is a resource the community and leadership within the community have identified as a jewel,” said Jones.

In Part 3 of this series, we will take a look into the future of the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, identifying how the Heersink gift will support our mission areas and bring value to the institution with new opportunities.