A Year to Remember
In her first major alumni event as the leader of the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), Barbara Lee Bass, MD, RESD ’86, used the annual State of the School address to cover the highlights of a tumultuous 2020, including a global pandemic, a national lockdown, the reunification of SMHS and The GW Medical Faculty Associates (GW MFA), and a horrific crime in Minnesota that led to the formation of an Anti-Racism Coalition at SMHS.
Like so many other events in 2020, the Annual GW SMHS MD Reunion Weekend was a virtual affair. However, that didn’t stop more than 330 MD program alumni from logging in for a host of virtual events, including an address from the university’s first person, and first woman, to hold the combined titles of vice president for health affairs, dean of SMHS, and CEO of the GW MFA.
“I think we can agree that this has been an exceptional year,” the dean began, acknowledging the uniqueness of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s one that has challenged us to our core in many ways, in our personal lives, our professional lives, and our creative lives. It’s been a daunting challenge, but for those of us in health care, it’s also been an exciting time.”
In her address, Bass framed her vision for SMHS based on her own experiences as a surgeon, medical educator, and clinician-scientist. She also paired it with the mission outlined by GW President Thomas LeBlanc — student experience, research, philanthropy and constituent engagement, institutional culture, and the medical enterprise— addressing how those goals align with the development of SMHS.
The dean recalled her evolution as a medical student and surgeon, and the importance of academic medicine and the influence faculty members can have on students. Bass remembered how influential Catherine Anderson, MD, a pediatric surgeon at SMHS and Children’s National Hospital, was on her decision to tackle the demanding field of surgery. “Back then there weren’t a lot of young women in medical school, and I never in my life would have imagined being bitten by the surgical bug, but when I was, one of the reasons was because I met the first woman surgeon I ever knew.”
LeBlanc’s desire to develop the research mission of the university, particularly in terms of interdisciplinary research dovetailed seamlessly with Bass’ own experiences, she said. In the midst of a surgical residency at GW, Bass took a year off and joined the U.S. Army — serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps — to qualify for a research fellowship at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. From that experience onward, Bass has made research a fixture in her career, teaming with engineers and mathematicians to advance her research in computational science.
“As a clinician-scientist, I really care about science. I think it is really important that those who are taking care of patients understand where our [knowledge] gaps are, where our needs are, and have the capability to be part of that discovery team. Living that experience has made it clear to me that, boy, is that hard, but it’s also very important.” Bass added that she hopes to advance the role of clinician-scientists at SMHS during her tenure.
For many years, Bass added, there has been separation between SMHS and the GW MFA. LeBlanc folded the GW MFA back into the university and SMHS, adding leadership of the clinical faculty group to the vice president for health affairs and dean role.
“My decision to take this job was founded on the notion that the GW MFA is the School of Medicine and Health Sciences clinical faculty,” she added. “It’s one of the reasons it’s such an exciting opportunity for me, as we really look at the GW academic clinical enterprise.”/p> The big news of the year, however, has been COVID-19. Early on in Bass’s tenure, the pandemic put much of her agenda on hold as the university was forced to send the students home to complete the academic year remotely.
The pandemic, however, also demonstrated the strength and resilience of the SMHS core programs and the exceptional talents of its clinicians, scientists, and students. “Our faculty sprang into action to create an online educational experience for our students,” Bass told the alumni.
“It’s been an amazing thing to witness,” she continued. “Following the lock down, many of the SMHS students were very active, dedicating their time as volunteers in the community. It was an astonishing array of participation, not only helping to create educational content with our faculty, but also by inserting themselves in the community in a variety of ways.”
The pandemic also is opening the doors to abundant opportunities for research.
“One of the first things we learned is that we needed testing, and we didn’t have it,” she said. Under the leadership of Antonia Sepulveda, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Pathology and Ralph E. Lowey Professor of Oncology, the school ramped up a wealth of molecular testing platforms.
SMHS also is involved in several clinical trials related to COVID-19. The school is one of 90 sites across the country involved in the Moderna Phase III vaccine trial. “Our explicit role in this is to enroll underrepresented minorities … in the trial,” Bass noted. “Under the leadership of David Diemert, MD, we have enrolled over our cap of 300 participants already.”
The school also boasts clinical investigations into potential therapeutics, such as convalescent plasma and Remdesivir; exploration of the genomics of platelet dysfunction and health disparities among the African American population; and the banking specimens for research into the virus.
This spring the campus also was rocked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The incident and the shock that swept across the country, prompted Bass and leaders from SMHS, GW Hospital, and the GW MFA to create the Anti-Racism Coalition, a multidisciplinary group committed to the development and active implementation of an antiracist academic community by identifying strategies and best practices to dismantle racism and ethnic oppression. The coalition has engaged faculty and staff throughout the school to support the mission of anti-racism.
“I really am hopeful that we can use this genuine moment in our history to utilize all of our tools to craft a new normal relative to race, equity, integrity, and opportunity,” Bass concluded.