May 16, 2007

College of Veterinary Medicine's incoming dean discusses research, trends, hospital for animals

Michael I. Kotlikoff, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell, will become the new dean of the college July 1. He succeeds Donald F. Smith, who is ending his 10-year deanship to return to the veterinary faculty. Kotlikoff sat down with staff writer Krishna Ramanujan to discuss what's on his mind as he prepares to take the helm of the Vet College.

You run a very strong research program. How will you find time to balance your research interests with all the responsibilities of being dean?

It will be a significant challenge. There are excellent people in the lab, and we have talked about ways in which individuals can develop more independence. I like the model of a working dean, and while it is difficult to pull off, it is something that keeps one connected with the daily problems that faculty face. Also, research is something from which I derive a tremendous amount of enjoyment and which I would be very reluctant to give up.

Could you talk about different directions you would like to take the Vet College?

As part of my presentation to the university I discussed a number of specific ideas that I would like to present to the faculty. These include the development of more flexible programs for the training of veterinarians and retention of faculty, as we are failing to attract veterinarians to academic medicine, and I would like to develop specific programs to address this issue.

Another major goal is to solidify and extend our position as a leader in clinical medicine and public health. The latter position is particularly challenging, as we face increasing expectations and responsibilities associated with emerging public health threats, while our program funding has actually declined. I look forward to developing a strong effort to ensure that Cornell continues its outstanding tradition as a leader in infectious disease research and public health.

On the research side, we have particular excellence in infection biology, genomics and the genetic basis of disease, in cancer biology and cell signaling, as well as in reproductive and cardiovascular biology. I would like to see these programs continue to mature and to form the basis of collaborative interactions with our colleagues.

Finally, I would also like to build on the fund-raising success of Dean [Don] Smith by raising the awareness of the importance of Cornell among people with a deep commitment to animals and animal health, and convincing these individuals of the unique strengths and importance of this college to veterinary medicine.

Do you see any trends in veterinary medicine on the whole that you would like to correct for or see continue?

We are at the leading edge of a great opportunity to understand the genetic basis of complex traits using animal species for which we have not had mature genetic tools in the past. The best example is the dog, which has a number of well recognized genetic characteristics such as body size and shape, behavior and disease susceptibility, a highly similar genome within breeds, and a completed, high-quality whole genome sequence. You may have seen [a recent] Science article that discussed the genetic basis of size differences between big dogs and small dogs that was produced by Cornell and National Institutes of Health researchers. Our strengths in genomics, computational and statistical biology and phenotype analysis uniquely position Cornell to exploit this emerging area of biological discovery.

Are there ways to enhance synergy in research between this college and Weill Cornell Medical College?

One of my goals is to educate faculty at both campuses about what's available at the other campus. So we've been recruiting people from Weill to come up, make presentations and meet our faculty. We've also recently begun to have joint retreats that are focused on specific research areas, which have led to collaborative NIH proposals. I would like to foster these interactions.

Where does the animal hospital fit in the overall role of the Vet College, and do you see any ways to strengthen the hospital's role?

The Cornell University Hospital for Animals is the central focus of many of our research, education and surveillance activities, and the delivery of first-rate medicine to our patients. Some veterinary colleges do not have a teaching hospital or provide clinical training to students in a variety of collaborative ways. This eliminates much of the cost of veterinary education, but also much of the distinctive benefit. Our students are in the hospital and exposed to clinical medicine from their first days at the college, which is of enormous benefit for their education. The animal hospital also provides a tremendous service to our community, our alumni and to the state, as a tertiary-care medical facility. The integration of the hospital in our research, teaching and clinical missions is an essential ingredient in our excellence, and each of these efforts would be diminished in the absence of this unique facility.