February 09, 2022

Meet medicine leadership in 2022, a series: Get to know Tika Benveniste, Ph.D.

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Benvenisteartwork 04In the "Meet medicine leadership" series, leaders across the UAB Health System share their stories and their vision for UAB as Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., FACS, transitions to his role as dean of the Heersink School of Medicine, CEO of UAB Health System and CEO of the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance. To date, we have featured Dawn Bulgarella, Anupam Agarwal, M.D., and Tony Jones, M.D.

This week, the communications team sat down with Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., to talk about her three and a half decades at UAB, how her Holocaust-survivor parents influenced her work ethic, and why she is excited about research at UAB at this moment.

Since first joining faculty in 1986, Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research in the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, has appreciated the collaborative approach of science at UAB.

Now, as she looks ahead to the future, she is excited about the process of evaluating the Heersink School of Medicine research focus areas for the next five years—which comes at the perfectly-timed crossroads of the Heersink naming gift and Vickers’ transition to CEO/Dean.

Growing up on the west coast

The meaning of hard work and perseverance runs through Dr. Tika Benveniste’s blood. Born to immigrant parents who survived the Holocaust, she grew up in Oakland, California.

“My parents started with literally nothing when they arrived in Oakland after World War II,” she said. “They rebuilt their lives from the ground up, joined a community, and became successful.”

As a child, Benveniste did not understand the tremendous trauma her parents had been through in the Holocaust—her dad losing his entire family except one brother—but as an adult she knows their stories instilled traits of resilience and resourcefulness in her identity.

"In some ways, it was hard for me because the normal teenage angst seemed very trivial to them. At the end of the day, it taught me how to put things in perspective,” she said.

Benveniste, an avid reader in her spare time, had access to college campuses early in life, living just five miles from UC Berkeley. Growing up, she was fascinated with science. “I had an interest in biology and science as a teenager. My mother had a biology background which probably influenced me,” she said.

A career investigating 'the mysteries of the immune system'

Benveniste said her undergraduate years are a prime example of how one teacher can impact someone's personal journey.

“In my junior year, I had an advanced course in immunology—which was still a rudimentary field at the time. My teacher, Allan Wilhelm, taught immunology as 'the mysteries of the immune system,' and it just absolutely grabbed me," she said.

After receiving her Bachelor of Science in Biology, she spent a year at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a world-renowned immunology lab. That lab work led to a Ph.D. program at UCLA in Immunology.

After her doctoral and postdoctoral work at UCLA, Benveniste came to UAB in 1986 as a non-tenure earning assistant professor, and then became a tenure-earning assistant professor in the Cell Biology Department in 1988. Since, she has held a number of leadership positions.

Benvenisteartwork 03An unexpected opportunity to lead

While there was not a plan in her early career to be in a leadership position, in 1995 she was asked by Dr. Dick Marchase to serve as director of the Graduate Program in Cell Biology. “I thought, ‘why me?’ I was flattered but told him I was not sure I had the skill set. And, he said, 'I've watched you, and you do,’ so I said okay, I’ll do it.” And unexpectedly, Benveniste found herself leading a program of over 80 graduate students.

“I found it to be tremendously rewarding,” she said about her five years serving in that role. “I enjoyed being of service to students.”

In 1999, she founded the Office of Postdoctoral Education where she served as associate dean from 1999-2001. “I started looking into the postdoc plight and found a number were underpaid, and had poor benefits and insurance. They needed to have an advocate for them and their well-being.” When Benveniste recognized that need, she approached leadership, and they agreed to support a new office.

She said that identifying a need, proposing a solution, and having it accepted by leadership is not abnormal at UAB. In fact, that type of collaboration and initiative is one facet that has kept her at UAB for 35 years.

Leading by understanding and empathizing

Benveniste’s CV is extensive and long, showcasing a breadth of experience in leadership, science and discovery, teaching, and research. She has held several notable leadership positions across UAB, including serving as chair of the Department of Cell Biology from 2000-2011, then serving as founding chair when the Department merged with physiology and biophysics and became the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology in 2012. In 2015, she joined the Dean’s Office as senior associate dean.

Now, as senior vice dean, her role encompasses everything related to research, including cores, space, recruitment and retention, managing internal funding mechanisms, and helping researchers build up their infrastructure—all while maintaining her own lab dedicated to researching neuroinflammation and the JAK/STAT signaling pathway. She has also been very active as a mentor throughout her time at UAB, having graduated 36 students with the Ph.D. degree and trained over 30 postdoctoral fellows.

“All of the activities I did in the past inform what I do now,” she stated. “I think my experience in research plus the leadership activity gives me credibility as senior vice dean; it’s tough to ask someone to do something that you have not done yourself."

“I can empathize with chairs because I have been a chair. I can empathize with faculty who received a rejection of a manuscript or grant. I can speak to several experiences because I have lived and continue to live those experiences.”

Benvenisteartwork 02Balancing work

While her plate is full and will only expand as the Heersink School of Medicine grows, Benveniste makes sure to find time for herself.

Usually reading three to four books per week, Benveniste’s passion is historical fiction and nonfiction, especially the era of World War II. “I also like the occasional trash novel,” she laughed.

She said she does at least one form of exercise per day. "I like walking. I walk a lot," she explained. "And during the pandemic, I took up boxing. I take lessons and am known around the boxing gym as 'Tika the terminator.” she said.

Strategizing the future of research

She brings the same intensity from the boxing ring to her daily work, explaining that her parents raised her to show up and do the absolute best work possible every single day. “The worst thing is having something fall through the cracks,” she said.

On the horizon, there are quite a few things Benveniste is looking forward to in the next few years, starting with the direction research is headed.

“A strategic research plan was developed in 2014 and has served us well, but science changes rapidly. We have reached out to every Heersink faculty member for their input on re-evaluating our priority areas and creating a new plan.”

Benveniste said input is necessary so this will be a “ground-up” initiative. “I am especially looking forward to hearing from junior faculty to understand what they see as exciting,” she said.

Another exciting facet of the future is the Heersink family’s historic $95 million gift. “It comes at a transformative time,” she said, adding that we are propelling towards academic excellence.

A pathway to unify mission areas

With Vickers’ role change, she said she looks forward to “having fairly siloed entities be more aligned.” There is an interconnectivity between research and clinical environments, she explained.

And while a lot of basic science does not begin with the thought of curing disease, it does provide a foundation to clinical research—it’s a building block. Research to clinical care is a continuum. It begins with basic science then becomes pre-clinical and translational, eventually leading to phase 1-3 clinical trials and, finally, ending at the bedside. The continuum is not linear though, and Benveniste is quick to note that "there’s a lot of serendipity in research. You may start down one path and end up in a new direction.”

As we move ahead, Benveniste predicts that there will be more opportunities to develop a deeper appreciation for what everyone—researcher, educator, provider, and scientist—does each day, and she envisions unified mission areas of research, clinical care, and medical education.