President Barron wants Penn State to lead in improving health of society

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State President Eric J. Barron outlined his goal for the University to impact the world by improving human health to the Board of Trustees at its meeting Friday (Nov. 10), held at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel on the University Park campus. 

As part of the University's Strategic Plan, Barron said he wants Penn State “to be a leader in promoting quality of life through comprehensive approaches to enhancing personalized and population health, achieved through a commitment to and investment in relevant research, education, clinical practice and outreach.” 

The goal is not without its challenges. Medical research funding is highly competitive, he said, adding that funding to Penn State from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is among the lowest in the top 25 universities. NIH awards more money to 23 other schools, including five in the Big Ten. 

“This is probably one of the areas with the most fertile ground of any major area for growing Penn State’s teaching and research enterprise,” Barron said. “If you want this to be a billion-dollar research university and up there among the top 10, then this is the area on which we need to focus.” 

Barron outlined his approach to achieving this goal: 

  • Transform medical education to meet 21st-century needs. Barron pointed out that for the first time ever, University Park has a full curriculum in medical education. Penn State also is allowing graduate students to pursue joint-degree programs. These programs would allow qualifying students to simultaneously work toward a medical degree and doctorate; a medical degree and master’s degree in public health; and a medical degree and an MBA. Barron also shared stories of medical students participating in HIV and malaria research in Zambia, providing care at rural hospitals in Ghana, and researching Taiwan’s healthcare system. 
  •  Promote collaborations across colleges and campuses.  Barron cited Penn State’s ability to integrate disciplines as a major strength, and he believes there’s room to expand cross-disciplinary research in human health. He noted that there are active health-related research and education projects in 13 colleges and across the Commonwealth Campuses. He also provided several examples of successful collaborative institutes, including the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, which has more than 470 faculty members representing seven colleges and 31 departments. More than 300 graduate students, post-doctoral students, and staff also are members of the Huck Institutes. “If you want to tackle big problems, the universities that will be big players are the ones that can cross the disciplines in order to tackle the problem,” Barron said. “This is one of the Penn State’s strengths — putting everybody together.”  
  •  Accelerate the process from discovery to clinical trials. In 2017, Penn State launched the Center for Medical Innovation. In less than a year, the center has added 47 new medical technologies to the intellectual property database. It also has filed 10 patents, founded two start-up companies and formed three license agreements. Barron highlighted the story of graduate student Olivier Noel, whose company, DNAsimple, is aimed at accelerating genetics research by connecting DNA donors with research scientists. The company provides scientists with access to critically important samples, significantly speeding up the pace for genetics research. Noel is currently in the MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program and was named to Forbes “30 under 30” list in the science industry. 
  • Promote health and wellness across the lifespan. This is the underlying focus of health education across the University, and Barron talked about how Penn State Health, the College of Nursing, the College of Health and Human Development, and the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness are all working to address the lifelong needs of patients, instead of just treating diseases as they arrive. 

Barron told the board he wants Penn State to become the human health leader in higher education by driving new advances in population health, preparing a workforce that is both highly trained and highly adaptable, and partnering with healthcare professionals to address urgent problems and promote wellness. 

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