Q&A with Marlys Koschinsky, PhD

Marlys Koschinsky, PhD, Scientific and Executive Director, sat down with us to talk about her first few months at Robarts, a shared vision for the Institute and how she is settling in personally and professionally.

You’ve been in your role at Robarts since October 2015. How have your first few months gone as the Scientific and Executive Director?
Well I can certainly say that is has gone very quickly. It’s been a really exciting time, as I learn more about Robarts and what it means to the people who work here. This has been accomplished through one-on-one meetings that I have been having with our scientists.

Additionally, it has been very interesting and informative to get the perceptions of Robarts from stakeholders external to the Institute including those at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Western University, as well as within the broader community.

It’s been a lot of learning required for me to bring myself up to speed quickly. Robarts is a big and busy place, with lots going on, and with many exciting avenues for development.

What accomplishments would you like to share?
We’re focusing on strengthening the internal relationships at Robarts and making sure that those of us who work here think of the Institute as a whole, even though people are, of course, very busy with their own research programs. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts for any organization, and Robarts is no exception. The recent launching of an internal Institute-wide seminar series highlighting the work of the more recently-recruited Robarts scientists is an example of a strategy we are using in order that people can get to know one another.

We’re also working on the development of a strategic plan for Robarts. This project is progressing very well. The Robarts Executive Committee has been meeting with different stakeholder groups including, for example, trainees at the Robarts, for the purpose of obtaining input to help guide development of our strategic plan. We are interested in hearing from different groups as to challenges and opportunities in developing productive partnerships with Robarts. This will help us to understand what we need to do to pave the way for the sustainability and growth of the Institute going forward.

What does the strategic planning process entail and what is the timeline at this point?
The first step as I outlined to you is meeting with stakeholder groups and collecting their input in response to specifically-tailored questions. Periodically we will be bringing ideas back to the broader Scientist group at Robarts in order to gain their input on the information we obtain that will allow the crafting of specific deliverables for the Plan.

Going forward, we are really trying to shine a light on how we can better position ourselves as a translational research institute and promote innovation at Robarts as a cornerstone for future development.  We’re collecting exactly the kind of information we need to inform the development of a strong, robust and creative plan that will provide a blueprint for how the Institute moves forward during the next five years. Ultimately the plan will help to define the essence of Robarts and what differentiates us from other health research institutes.

We want to have the plan done and ready to share in about a year from now. Although the timelines are aggressive, we realize the importance of having the plan in place in a timely manner.

What is your future vision for the Institute?
The future vision has to be a shared vision, and it will grow out of the strategic planning exercise.
It will necessarily include building to strengths and defining what is special about Robarts. Looking to the future, the phrases and words that come to my mind when I think about Robarts are precision medicine approaches to translational heath research, innovation, and research excellence, all fueled by a very high level of technology that serves as a critical infrastructure platform for our work. It is also important to emphasize that we operate in a strong clinical context. As such, we want to be able to position ourselves to capitalize on this and drive health research translation.

When these concepts are put together, it paints an exciting picture about how we can move an  innovation agenda forward through the forging of new strategic partnerships to make sure that we’re translating our fundamental research discoveries.

Robarts affords a highly innovative and exciting environment that will most certainly shape our future development. It is important to realize that innovation is not limited to research – we are actively thinking of new ways to foster innovation as it relates to training the next generation of scientists that will also factor into our future plans for the Institute.

What do you see Robarts’ role in the community being?
This is something that we’re actively discussing, and various sectors of the community will form key stakeholder groups that we’ll be reaching out to during our strategic planning process. We feel that the interaction between Robarts and the community has to be very strong – it’s essential that the community know what we’re doing, why it’s relevant and how the work that goes on at Robarts makes it a special place.

Our relationship with the community will also guide the development of strategic partnerships. Groups that we will be meeting with in the coming weeks will include, for example, the London Economic Development Corporation and Tech Alliance. We certainly believe that there are a number of organizations in this city who we could better work with to drive aspects of our innovation agenda.

And of course, when we think about the community, we must include the hospitals and the work that’s going on there and how we can more productively partner with our clinical colleagues to enhance both research and training at the Robarts. Ultimately these linkages will be critical in driving translational research forward at the Institute.

We really want to make sure that our plan includes ways in which we can be embedded in the community at all levels in the coming years. The important thing is we need to make sure we’re on people’s radar and that the community at large is aware we are open to cooperation and collaboration.

You’ve been splitting time between London and Windsor, where your family is. How has the process of settling into London been going for you?
We actually just bought a house in London and will be officially moving here in June. I’ll be able to start exploring more ways that I can get involved in the community once my life becomes less complex and I develop a sense of being more settled.

What is your approach to community involvement?
I consider my involvement in the community as integral to my role at the Robarts. I view my position as being external – very much in the public eye – as well as internal to the faculty and the University. Community engagement is going to be very important for Robarts moving forward. People need to understand who we are and the relevance of the work that we are doing. That can’t just happen from making phone calls – I have to be out meeting people so that we can develop a strong presence in the community. We also enjoy hosting community at the Robarts, in the form of our Discover Robarts events for example.

What is on the horizon for events?
In terms of community engagement, plans for the 2016 Public Forum and Leaders in Innovation Dinner are coming along very well. With the focus on lung disease, including asthma and COPD, this year’s event is going to be a wonderful celebration of scientific excellence focused on diseases that touch many members of our community.

In connecting with the community, what is one message you would like to share?
We can’t carry out the Robarts agenda without involvement of the community and recognition from our donors. We’re very grateful to those who support the important work we do.

We’ve received some much-appreciated donations recently and they all make a difference to the work that we are doing. They support health research projects and infrastructure platforms at Robarts that allow us to push the boundaries of innovation and to take our research to the next level.

What are you doing with your own research at this time?
The  general area of focus of my research program is lipoprotein(a) (Lp(a)), which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. I  work on several aspects of Lp(a) research, including identification of novel receptors for its removal from circulation and understanding how Lp(a) contributes to atherosclerosis and blood clot persistence, as well as to aortic valve disease. Ultimately we would like to develop therapeutic strategies to mitigate the cardiovascular risk associated with Lp(a), either by lowering blood levels of this lipoprotein, or by inhibiting its harmful effects in the vasculature.

What role does collaboration play in your work?
This work has spurred some really great collaborations for me with a wide variety of academic and industrial partners. I’ve recently submitted grant applications in partnership with institutions in Australia and have initiated exciting new projects with a groups of researchers at University of California, San Diego and Laval University in Quebec. Importantly, I’ve already initiated collaborative work with other cardiovascular research scientists at Robarts, such as Dr. Rob Hegele and Robert Gros, PhD. I’m very excited about the possibilities for my own work now that I am part of Robarts. It’s really already made such a difference to my research program to have access to state-of-the art technology coupled with the expertise of leading researchers in the cardiovascular field to move my work forward.

How do you balance your research and leadership roles?
Of course it goes without saying that my own work is always a secondary priority to my role as the Scientific and Executive Director of the Institute. But the expectation has always been that I would have a research presence and a research program at the Robarts. Certainly I would never want to step away from my research program entirely because of my passion for research and recognition of the critical role it plays in developing strategies to deal with complex chronic diseases such as heart disease.

It’s been really exciting to travel to conferences and present my own work while very proudly flying the Robarts banner and promoting awareness of the Institute. I always feel such a sense of pride when people I meet acknowledge with enthusiasm the Robarts Institute and the immense research impact we have made.

What is your favourite thing about Robarts so far?
The people at the Robarts who contributing to this incredible Institute. I enjoy interacting with the scientists, trainees and staff in the Institute. Robarts is filled with vibrant and exciting people who are committed to the Institute and who each have their own opinions about Robarts and how to make it better. It’s just great to understand their individual perspectives, and what drives them to do what they do. They continue to show me that the whole is indeed much more than the sum of the parts.