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Dynamic duo co-leads graduate school

Annual Report - Winter 2013

By Lori Baker

It’s run by two schools: Why not have two deans? This new leadership formula at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) is one that mixes equal parts logic and irrationality.

“Some think we’re crazy to do this,” confides Michelle Barton, Ph.D., who began co-leading GSBS with Michael Blackburn, Ph.D., on July 1. “But, experimentation is part of our DNA as scientists, so I view this as an exciting opportunity to prove this non-traditional arrangement is not just viable, but preferred.”

Michael Blackburn, Ph.D., and Michelle 
Barton, Ph.D., are co-leaders of the Graduate
Schooll of Biomedical Sciences.
Photo: Adolfo Chavez III

Both Barton and Blackburn hold the title of dean. They each have full authority individually, but know that collaboration and consensus are key to making a dual-deanship work.

“Within days, we realized how much we were going to interact, so we immediately set up a time to meet with our spouses,” Barton laughs.

Although both are professors of biochemistry and molecular biology, they didn’t know each other well before July. That’s because they work at different institutions: Barton at 
MD Anderson since 2000, Blackburn at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) since 1997. The two neighboring institutions jointly operate GSBS.

“We both know our institutions’ strengths, and together we bring a new level of understanding and synergy to the school’s leadership,” Blackburn says. “This model also will help ensure balance of institutional responsibilities.”

Respected scientists, new methodology

Both are highly accomplished scientists who plan to continue their research pursuits while setting a new trajectory for the school. Fueling their ambitious
plans are added resources committed by both institutions’ presidents: Ronald DePinho, M.D. (MD Anderson), and Giuseppe Colasurdo, M.D. (UTHealth).

“Both presidents believe GSBS plays a critical role in achieving the missions of their institutions, and they’ve committed unprecedented funding to take the school to new levels of excellence,” Barton says.

Ronald DePinho, M.D., congratulates 
graduates of GSBS during his first 
commencement as MD Anderson president.
Photo: F. Carter Smith

The duo’s first order of business has been conducting a comprehensive assessment of the school and putting into motion their 12-point vision. Their initial priorities focus on recruitment, admissions and career development for students.

A common response to hearing about this uncommon leadership strategy has been: “If any two people can make it work, it’s Shelley and Mike.”

Both are unassuming, approachable and have a good sense of humor, as evidenced at their introductory townhall, where they quipped they would resolve differences of opinions using the rock-paper-scissor methodology.

Their commitment, however, is no laughing matter. “We — along with many of the GSBS faculty — have wanted to build on the school’s success, and what better time to accelerate our efforts than now, as we celebrate GSBS’s 50th anniversary in 2013,” Barton concludes.

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