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Michael Blackburn, PhD

Dean of Research, ad interim
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and William S. Kilroy, Sr.
Distinguished University Chair in Pulmonary Disease Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer Dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences John P. McGovern Endowed Distinguished Professor

When we saw what was happening in Europe in March of last year, we had to move very quickly and think, “What are we going to do with research labs and education at McGovern and UTHealth?” It became clear that we would have to change. So, the initial response from me was to seek data. And I did this by interacting with the CDC and NIH, and I made a lot of phone calls with colleagues who head up research programs at NYU, Mt. Sinai, and others. They have medical students, labs with post docs, research techs, and faculty, similar to us, and I wanted to know what they were doing.

Some of it was very hard. New York was getting slammed. It was a challenge to calibrate and make decisions based on data. You have to be able to make decisions quickly with not as much data as you are used to. I also sought feedback from local researchers. And we pivoted. We did this in clinical arena and with research, rapidly setting up communication with our research leaders, having scheduled phone calls to effectively listen and give information. Across the country, institutions were pulling people out of labs. We did not want to do this and made the decision to not eliminate research. The virus was very scary, and we were questioned, “Were we putting people at risk?” I was happy to make the decision and own it because I had feedback from people around the country. We modeled our program around the intramural program at the NIH, which has a similar set up to ours, and they did not shut down either. We diminished the density of personnel in the labs and made sure we had adequate communication. Communication with faculty was a mixed bag – some were grateful we did not shut down, others less so. I learned you have to own decisions, listen, and make sure people get the resources they need. In my experience, I have never gone through anything like this. Another thing I learned is that you may have a meeting agenda, but in a crisis, people express a lot of things, and you have to be responsive.

“It required a lot of work; people who went above and beyond. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was scary but gratifying.”

On an institutional level, we came into the pandemic unprepared and had to learn on the fly – how, when do we test for COVID? I’m so proud of the teams at UTHealth. When you think about the PIs, the research labs – they were so responsive and created safe environments. Environmental Health and Safety – Bob Emery and Scott Patlovich and their team, stretched but providing information and help, which was very critical. We changed physically as well – Amar Yousif, Bassel Choucair and Information Technology who pivoted and took us online overnight so we did not shut down research and education. It required a lot of work; people who went above and beyond. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was scary but gratifying. I received “how can I help” emails from so many people. It made me proud of our institution that people cared so much, stepping out of their normal area.

People were flexible and willing to do whatever it took to solve the problems instantaneously. We were worried if we would we have enough PPE, thinking we could run out in a week – and we had people gathering up supplies from across the university. The other thing I reflect back on is the health care environment. We are so fortunate to have the doctors and nurses do what they did and are still doing it today – truly amazing. We always promote the importance of the academic health care environment, and that manifested itself with COVID by being of the academic research question-oriented manner and getting things done. Our residents and faculty were able to change the way we treat patients. I have been a scientist 30 years, and I love reading the literature and solving problems; I had never read so much every day about what they learned in China, Italy, throughout the United States on COVID – learning about the spike protein, learning about the virus’ mechanisms. President Colasurdo is the same way – I get a paper a day from him about COVID. We learn and modify, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve never been so intellectually stimulated because it really matters and you make decisions on what you learn. I didn’t see that coming.

I had concerns about education – how will the pandemic affect the ability of our students to make progress. It was the right decision to pull our students of the clinics – they needed to focus the clinics on COVID. We moved education online. The educational programs at all schools did so well – still providing a high level of education virtually. Once we started securing adequate levels of PPE, and we learned wearing masks is a way to dampen the spread of virus; we learned how to screen, test, contract trace, say no to certain things, then we were able to bring the students back to campus. Making that decision was great.

I learned how important strong leadership is during a crisis. When I had daily phone calls with the dean of every school, they had to lead and make decisions and communicate with their staff and communicate back to us. They all stepped up and made tough decisions; we didn’t have a committee meeting to solve that problem. In a crisis, we don’t have that luxury of time to get feedback, we just had to make the decision and own it. Working with the deans was a real honor. Working here on the financial side to get us through this crisis also was important. At this beginning, the state income tax was dropping, the price of oil was going down, and people were losing their jobs. But with our team, Kevin Dillon, Mike Tramonte, Angela Smith, Julie Page, Nancy McNiel – we not just survived, we thrived. I learned a lot from them and am proud to be associated with them.

One thing to bear in mind is that this is a pandemic, and people have been on edge. It is really important to layer compassion, empathy, and flexibility and remove the absolutes – thou shalt work on campus, for instance. We are here to listen and put a plan in place. I am proud how the deans, chairs, and administrators all looked inward and started working it out. Hopefully our students, faculty, and staff had flexibility to get through this. It’s all about the people at UTHealth. They all rose to the occasion and were creative. It’s just wonderful to be associated with an institution where everyone understands the importance of the mission. It made me proud to be a part of this school.