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Q&A With the New Dean: Gordon Tomaselli, M.D.

Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, an Einstein alumnus, returned to campus in July to assume his new role as the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean. Here, he discusses his priorities, his vision for the future and more.

When you were an Einstein medical student in the early 1980s, did you have any thoughts about career goals?

Einstein helped cultivate my goal of being a physician-scientist. We were taught by very senior, well-established professors who were terrific role models for that career path, and who made me believe it was possible. I wasn’t thinking about leadership then but about job satisfaction, taking care of patients, and how the next generation of patients should be cared for. That was something that Einstein ingrained in us.

When did you first think about taking on a prominent role in medical school leadership? Was it during your time at Johns Hopkins?

Yes. Long before I was a division director, I was a vice chair for research in the department of medicine, where you actually got to help steer the direction of the department, and in particular the department’s research mission. And that was particularly satisfying. So that’s when I thought that if an opportunity came along, I certainly would think long and hard about it. But it would have to be at a place that had science as a prominent part of its core mission. That’s the thing that motivates me and is most exciting.


Video: Dean Tomaselli welcomes First-Year Medical Students at Einstein
We need to teach this generation of learners in the manner they like to learn best. Obviously it’s not the way I learned; it’s more digital, and it requires innovation.”

What are your priorities as dean?

First and foremost, I would like to continue strengthening the academic mission, with a focus on education and training and research, and completion of the integration of Einstein with Montefiore. In general, the priorities of the dean are to support faculty, students and staff and promote engagement with our community.

On the education side, I’m interested in two things. First, we need to teach this generation of learners in the manner they like to learn best. Obviously it’s not the way I learned; it’s more digital, and it requires innovation and thinking outside the box. And it’s important to give people the tools they need to continue learning throughout their careers. I think about the body of information that I learned as a medical student, and it’s a fraction of what exists today.

As I think about the tremendous amount of material that students are currently absorbing, it’s not that I learned that information and forgot it but that I never learned it in the first place.So that’s what people have to be equipped to do—confront new material that they haven’t been exposed to and have the tools to master it on their own.

And the second piece, which benefited me at Johns Hopkins, is an emphasis on process thinking—taking an engineering mindset to solve problems and make things work better, from laboratory research to clinical programs. We don’t want to make medical students engineers, but we want them to be able to converse with software and computer and biomedical engineers. And understanding the concepts engineers use will better inform how doctors treat patients. I think about it more in terms of computer programming: you take modules and fit those together to address a problem in biomedicine.

What is your main concern about the future of medical education?

I’m concerned about the vast expansion of information in medicine, which will require taking a new approach to learning. The other concern is the cost of education and the debt that students are taking on. There are several philanthropic fund-raising platforms to explore. One is describing to potential donors the cost of medical education. Also, many schools use their endowments to support tuition remission for those who can’t afford medical school. Debt-free medical education open to all qualified candidates is an aspirational goal.

What made you choose cardiology as a specialty?

I was always fascinated by the fundamental basis of biological electricity, and I cultivated that at Einstein by working in neuroscience and neuropathology with Dr. William Norton. But while I was still a resident, my mother received a cardiac transplant at age 49. She lived in Maine at the time and was the second person to receive a heart transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. (The first was a woman who lived around the corner from her, strangely enough.) So that personal experience certainly helped solidify my decision.

We have a whole library of heart cells made from human patients that we can study, because it’s very difficult to study heart tissue.”

Do you plan to continue your research?

I hope to maintain a small laboratory, but I view my primary responsibility as making every effort to ensure the success of the College of Medicine. I currently have a couple of grants to investigate the molecular basis of cardiac arrhythmia by studying ion channels and their regulation.

I also study the consequences of mutations that cause human disease by affecting ion channels.We’re particularly focused on things like Long QT Syndrome, Brugada syndrome, CPVT [catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia], and arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.

I had a fairly large clinic at Hopkins, and we would actually solicit patients for blood so we could make heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells, and we’re still doing that. We have a whole library of heart cells made from human patients that we can study, because it’s very difficult to study heart tissue. If I came up to you and said, “Can I have a little chunk of your heart?” you’d be justifiably reluctant. But if I said, “Can I take a little bit of your blood and make some heart cells?” that’s a more acceptable option. And we make not only heart cells but also mini tissues, because studying heart cells is good but studying a tissue model is even better.So that’s the kind of thing I want to continue doing if possible.

Much of Einstein’s research is in the basic sciences. Do you see that evolving?

I think that the research portfolio will grow, and I believe it will include more translational and clinical research, which will help integrate the Einstein and Montefiore campuses. Ideally, basic science research should have a connection to clinical medicine.

Do you feel that Einstein becoming an independent degree-granting institution is fundamentally important to our education mission?

Yes. It gives us more autonomy and the ability to create and innovate in the educational space. But there are enormous challenges, such as giving people the tools to be lifelong learners. The best medical schools prepare people not only to practice medicine but to have a bigger role in what we do as a society. When I was American Heart Association president, I spent a lot of my three-year term lobbying on Capitol Hill to support National Institutes of Health funding and measures to bolster preventive health efforts, such as tobacco-free spaces and reducing sugar consumption. Those are the kinds of things that you can do to help inform government leadership.

Do you expect to spend more time in Washington, D.C., to comment on those types of issues?

Yes. I think it’s important to be part of research and advocacy initiatives at the college and to encourage other Einstein faculty members to do so. As a health system that serves an underserved community, we should advocate for healthy environments through efforts such as the Montefiore School Health Program, which helps children develop healthy habits so they’re less likely to become chronically ill as they get older. Being a part of the community is what an academic medical center can and should do.


If I’d had enough talent, I’d have been an animator like my father, Rudolph Tomaselli. He’s still around but not active in animation anymore. ”

What is the greatest change that you’ve noticed between the time you were a student here and now that you’re back?

I barely recognize the physical infrastructure. I do recognize 1935 Eastchester Avenue, the building I lived in for a few years. But almost everything else is different. It’s amazing. The Van Etten Building was a TB sanitarium when I was here, and now it has a simulation center and is a robust and energetic place for learning, which it wasn’t back then.

You’ve been in Baltimore for the past few decades; what are your sports allegiances?

I was raised in New York, and always have been and always will be a Yankee fan. My Uncle Joe worked at a bar outside Yankee Stadium and was good friends with [catcher] Elston Howard. So that was my team when I was 8 or 9 years old.

What will you miss most about living in Baltimore?

Our children and our granddaughter are going to stay there, so I’ll miss the network of friends and family. We do have some family in the New York City area, which is a plus. And I’ll miss eating soft-shell crabs, so I’ll have to make sure I get down there enough during crab season.

Do you have a favorite type of cuisine?

I love Indian food and of course I love Italian food. And I love Mexican food. So I landed in the right place.

What kind of reading do you like to do?

Our youngest child is a history and political science major who has influenced me to return to historical novels and biography. I just read The Invention of Air, which is about Joseph Priestly, a scientist and a compatriot of Benjamin Franklin who was run out of England and came to America. It provided an insight into how scientists were able to make foundational discoveries back then without the tools that we have today.

Is it true you wanted to be a baseball player when you were young?

Right. Although I could hit a curveball in high school, I couldn’t hit a college-level curve. So I gave up on that as a career.

If you hadn’t become a physician, what might you have done instead?

If I’d had enough talent, I’d have been an animator like my father, Rudolph Tomaselli. He’s still around but not active in animation anymore. He had his own studio in Manhattan and started with Hanna-Barbera. He worked on Felix the Cat initially. He used to do lots of commercials, and he created the character Punchy—as in “How’d you like a nice Hawaiian Punch?” But he’s most famous for being the head animator for the Beavis and Butt-Head movie, on which he helped supervise all the drawing boards. I used to come to work with him and watched how things were done using an animation camera. You’d change body parts, and you’d shoot 26 frames per second to create the movie. It was fascinating. He always had a much more interesting job than my friends thought I had.

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