Q&A with Michael Abecassis, dean of the College of Medicine – Tucson
When Michael Abecassis took over as dean of the College of Medicine – Tucson in November 2019, few could have imagined the challenge that was ahead. He is now leading the college's education, research and critical care efforts through a global pandemic.
In this Q&A, Abecassis discusses the college's COVID-19 response, his approach to leadership and how he spends his time outside work.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada.
Do you have family here?
My wife, Debbie, and I are empty nesters, having raised five kids. We now have three Yorkies.
What's your research focus?
I have had several research interests over the years, mostly revolving around (organ) transplantation. Presently, I am focused on molecular biomarker discovery and functional genomics, as well as on the molecular triggers of reactivation of a latent herpes virus called cytomegalovirus that affects immunocompromised hosts, including transplant patients.
Would you say transplant surgery is your passion?
I would definitely say that transplantation is one of my passions. Of course, as a surgeon, the surgical piece is the fun part. But there is also a tremendous amount of innovation around moving the field of transplantation forward that involves a lot of different clinical and academic disciplines and, in a way, those have all become an integral part of my passion that spill onto the broader spaces of research, as well as education and training. Finally, at this stage of my career, the passion has evolved beyond transplantation into health care in general, and the advancement of academic medicine in particular, especially as the landscape changes rapidly. I guess navigating through those changes has become my new passion.
What drew you to the College of Medicine – Tucson?
I view challenges as opportunities; the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity. This is what drew me to transplantation from the onset. I entered the field of transplantation at a time where success was a real question mark. Now, through advancements in the science and field of transplantation, these procedures have become routine for the most part.
I am the eternal optimist, always seeing the glass half full. What drew me to COM-T was that I saw a great institution that was going through some bumps, but with an outstanding leadership team in place, and with equally outstanding people here. I thought and continue to think that the opportunity to excel in all domains that pertain to (University of Arizona) Health Sciences in general, and to COM-T in particular, is huge. So, in short, it was the attraction that was the opportunity itself, and the prospect of a great vision of a future state.
How has the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic impacted your approach with faculty research, student learning and other operations?
On March 17, 2020, all medical student clinical rotations were put on pause in response to the pandemic. The very next day, all classes at the University were converted to an online format. Our education team immediately focused on making sure that graduation requirements for clinical rotations and in-person encounters were not compromised, working closely with accreditation agencies, rapidly developing alternative learning experiences. Our clerkship and residency program directors, our educational staff and even our students worked around the clock to address and resolve logistical issues related to the online transition as they arose. As a result, all our medical students were making a successful in-person reentry to clinical experiences, as early as June 1; our fourth-year students were able to graduate on time, including early graduation for some. Our other students were able to quickly adapt to hybrid learning.
Our researchers' scientific efforts were scaled in compliance with local and institutional directives. Nonessential on-campus research was shut down on April 8, with only preapproved essential, in-person research permitted. Since then, our research activities have gone through various phases of activity again following local and institutional directives responsive to local rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection, transmission and disease. Of note, our research faculty contributed to providing collection kits for PCR testing early on when national shortages prevented testing, and as early as March, we developed, scaled and readied statewide SARS-Cov-2 antibody testing, garnering national attention.
We witnessed two surges in COVID-19 cases. The first in the spring caused us to pause all elective care. During the second surge in mid-summer, we continued providing elective care while we handled an even larger surge, with the exception of a short and incremental pause. Both pauses were guided by daily debriefings that included clinical and administrative leadership, as everyone worked together, side by side, to care for our community, while planning for the phased resumption of elective care, ensuring the safety of our staff and patients. In parallel, our residents and fellows have continued their training, and in some instances, through redeployment strategies, have helped address specific clinical needs facilitating the assessment and management of patients during these surges.
What is your vision for the college?
It is clear that deans today need to not just understand the academic realities, but also to put these in the context of the changing health care landscape, including the logistics and finances behind health care delivery. Therefore, we need to develop a better understanding and a better relationship with our clinical partner, Banner Health, in order to better leverage our individual assets so that one plus one equals three.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the college?
I don't tend to think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but instead in terms of challenges, gaps and opportunities. Every challenge and every gap present a unique set of opportunities. I believe that we are blessed with a number of strong assets, both within and outside the COM-T, that we can leverage through key strategic initiatives in order to capture our full potential.
What's your leadership style?
I think it is fair to say that leadership styles evolve over time. Part of this is that both careers and demands evolve. In addition, social norms also evolve over time. As a result, I believe that my leadership style has evolved from always leading from the front to mostly leading from the middle, with broad input and consensus, empowering those at the front, but as the need arises, transiently "helicoptering" back to the front. Therefore, I would describe my leadership style as fluid, depending on the situation, and on who else is there to lead from the front at a particular moment in time. In an ideal situation, the leadership team should be broad and deep, allowing for appropriate but watchful delegation of responsibilities. But depending on the situation, when external or unforeseen pressures arise that require decisive actions, especially when leaders at the front lines ask for support, the balance of responsibilities may need to shift temporarily until the situation stabilizes.
At the end of the day, all leaders need to be accountable for their decisions and the consequences of their actions, and principles of accountability need to be engendered and espoused by the entire leadership team. This all said, I strongly believe that one of the most important considerations for a leader is to give credit and praise to others when things are going well, while looking in the mirror and assuming responsibility and accountability when they are not.
What is something interesting about you that most people don't know?
I did my master's thesis in the mid-1980s on the clotting effects of a coronavirus.
What are your hobbies?
I am a surgeon, so I like working with my hands. I enjoy working on old British sports cars and working around the house. My wife, Debbie, and I also love collecting antiques.
This story was adapted from an article that originally appeared on the College of Medicine – Tucson website.