Robarts today and into the future – A Q&A with Robert Bartha

Photograph of Robert Bartha, PhDRobert Bartha, PhD has been a leading imaging scientist at Robarts Research Institute for nearly two decades. This summer, he took on a key strategic role as the Institute’s Acting Director of Strategy and Scientific Integration. Since August, he has been actively overseeing the operations of the Institute and planning for some reviews and a new strategic plan.

Typically, Bartha would have an opportunity to meet with community members and donors through tours and presentations, however the pandemic has put a pause on larger group interactions. The research at Robarts continues however, albeit using some different approaches, and it’s new leader was enthusiastic to sit down for an interview and share some of the work that has been taking place and will happen in the coming months to be shared through the Institute’s community newsletter.

How has the pandemic affected research and research progress for scientists at the Institute?

The pandemic has presented a number of challenges to the way our research laboratories conduct their experiments but also interesting opportunities. Scientists, students, and staff adapted very quickly to the precautions that were implemented to slow the spread of the virus and keep everyone safe. Experiments were halted in March during the shutdown, and then slowly ramped back up again over the summer.

It does take a significant amount of time and effort to re-start some experiments, which means that progress, has been slower than usual. Additionally, because we are limiting the time for researchers to be in the Institute, the amount of interaction between scientists and trainees has declined. This type of interaction is absolutely critical for the creative process of scientific discovery and with the decline of spontaneous interaction. On the flip side, trainees and scientists now interact seamlessly through online platforms like Zoom, which has also opened up new possibilities for greater interaction with scientists across the globe.

A number of Robarts scientists have also applied their expertise to tackle important health challenges presented by the coronavirus disease, ranging from the development of low-cost ventilators, to studying the impact on the respiratory system, to understanding the long-term effects in the brain. This research will contribute to ongoing global efforts to limit the long-term health effects of the disease.

In the last community newsletter, information was shared about renovations being made to the Institute. Did the pandemic slow those renovations down? Can you provide us with an update?

Despite the slowdown due to COVID, the Institute has continued to advance several key research initiatives and infrastructure development. There are two areas that have seen considerable development during the past year.

The first is the imaging infrastructure related to interventional radiology. New research interventional suites incorporating the latest technologies, as well as a research computerized tomography scanner are being developed in the basement and on the first floor of the Institute. Second, is the completion of the space hosting a new concept at Robarts called the Innovation Hub. This concept is designed to increase interaction between Robarts scientists and our industry collaborators by embedding research personnel from industry within the Institute. This space will be a focal point for entrepreneurs to gather, try new ideas, and learn from our industry partners and scientists. It provides a unique training environment for students who are likely to pursue a career in industry and simultaneously facilitates the Institute’s mission of translating scientific discoveries to produce the greatest societal benefit.

These are exciting developments within the Institute and I am truly grateful for the financial support we have received from several private sector partners who in part have made this possible.

What exciting research advancements have occurred during the past year at the Institute?

Researchers have made significant advancements during the past year in understanding normal brain function and dysfunction in conditions ranging from concussion to schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease. The integration of advanced imaging technologies and behavioural assessments continues to propel new insights into neurological diseases.

They really continue to push the limits of advanced imaging technologies. By integrating new imaging hardware developed in-house with state-of-the-art data analytics, scientists are uncovering and visualizing new indicators of disease. These indicators will help with the early diagnosis and monitoring of diverse conditions ranging from lung disease, to cardiac disease, to neurological diseases, and cancer.

Donors continue to support the Institute, why is their support so important and how is it being used?

All scientists at Robarts are extremely grateful for the support we receive from the community. The financial support of donors is a vital component of the research enterprise.

Donor support enables us to purchase new, cutting-edge equipment and provides researchers with seed funding to test very new, often-risky ideas. It is the testing of these new high-risk ideas where the most exciting science is often found. Some ideas don’t work at all, but every so often, these donor driven projects provide the spark to start a whole new line of investigation that may lead to an important discovery.

Without donor support, we are limited in our ability to fund these ideas and important discoveries would not be possible. For this reason, increasing donor support in key growth areas within the institute is very important. Research teams at Robarts are among the best in the world and embedded in an entrepreneurial environment that values research excellence and interdisciplinary science. Fueled by support from donors, new ideas that leverage our cross-cutting research strengths may lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from mental illness to cancer to heart disease.

Robarts is undertaking a strategic planning process and is undergoing an external review. Can you provide an update on that work and why it is so critical at this time?

Yes, in the coming months the Institute will be undergoing a planned external review. The goal of the review process is to obtain feedback regarding the scientific directions of the Institute, as well as the role of the Institute in growing and expanding the research mission of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Western University in general. The review will provide us with an opportunity to articulate a clear strategic vision, and to receive feedback on that vision from outside experts.

As part of the preparation for the review, scientists at Robarts are engaging in a strategic planning exercise that will set the course for the Institute to have an even greater societal impact in medical research in areas such as neuroscience, cardiovascular disease, and imaging.

I am really looking forward to what we will achieve through these processes and how it will set a strong path for our future.