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Meet a Modern Researcher

He slices down corridors, then darts into a stairway where he bounds up five flights of steps, the tassels on his loafers bouncing wildly.

“Becoming a top researcher today is intimidating. It's daunting to create your own niche."

"Those of you who've come to know me know there's no moss that grows on the bottom of these shoes. Im ready to move."

photomontage of Chernow engaged in meetings
  Cherenow on the go

“I have tons of energy and lots of red-headed enthusiasm,” says Bart Chernow, who recently assumed leadership of one of the largest, and most distinguished, academic medical research programs in the world. Those attributes—along with his ease in approaching people to give money-should serve him well. These are the skills this deanship now demands.

Bart Chernow is on his way to the fourth meeting of the morning, navigating from his office in the School of Medicine administration building to a conference room on the Hospital side.

He swings through doors, jumps into an elevator for a couple of floors, slices down corridors, then darts into a stairway where he bounds up five flights of steps, the tassels on his loafers bouncing wildly. He reaches the top landing only to find the entry door locked.

“This one doesn’t go where we need to go,” he says, seeming neither perturbed nor winded, and simply turns around and races back down the stairs to find another route to his destination.

Bart Chernow, M.D., is learning his way around Hopkins. He’s learning the best way to get from here to there, learning how to get around locked doors and other such obstacles, figuring out which paths work and which do not.

In the few months since he was appointed the SOM’s vice dean for research, technology and corporate relations, Chernow has been a man in fast forward, but that seems to be the operating speed he enjoys.

“I have tons of energy and lots of red-headed enthusiasm,” is the way Chernow likes to describe himself. As he assumes leadership of one of the largest, and most distinguished, academic medical research programs in the world, those attributes should serve him well—along with his gregarious nature, eager handshake, and comfort in approaching people to give money. For that is one of the skills this deanship now demands.

David Blake, Ph.D., was the SOM’s vice dean for research until his departure for the Association of American Medical Colleges in 1996, and since then the post has been occupied by two brief appointments: first interim director Frank Adkinson, M.D., an allergy expert, then John Stobo, M.D., who left to become dean of the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston. But the appointment Chernow now holds has been redesigned and renamed (adding the designations technology and corporate relations) to reflect the new realities of medical research support and a new role for the dean: fund-raiser. Far from shrinking from this aspect of the job, Chernow, whose specialty is critical care medicine, clearly relishes it.

In these first months as vice dean, he’s been meeting with wealthy donors in New York City to raise millions for a new research fund he’s dreamed up and an Institute of Genetic Medicine; he’s organized a scientific advisory council to keep him in direct touch with what’s going on in campus labs and advise him on research and spending priorities; and he is assembling a corporate advisory board to make Hopkins more responsive, and better known, to the corporate world.

Starting the dayNavigating New Terrain

Chernow is no stranger to Hopkins: For the last seven years he’s been a professor on the faculty, with joint appointments in the departments of Medicine and Anesthesiology & Critical Care Medicine, and served as program director of the Hopkins/Sinai Hospital program in internal medicine. But now he’s moved up and into the center of action, his office down the hall from his old friend Edward Miller, M.D., dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, and he needs to navigate the Hopkins terrain in a new way.

“The strategic approach I’m taking in this new position is I’m going around and listening to people, to help me understand the work they’re doing, their concerns, the needs they have, their suggestions,” he says of his ambitious, getting-to-know-you-agenda in which he toured labs and offices and met with more than 150 faculty members in his first eight weeks on the job. “Out of those conversations, the ideas about how to serve the research enterprise are jelling in my mind.”

That “research enterprise” is a very different one from the old days of securing government funding for Hopkins’ gifted scientists and then allowing whatever came out of that research to seep into the medical world in due course. These days, Hopkins takes a far more sophisticated, and aggressive, approach.

Chernow’s administrative umbrella is a wide one, stretching over the offices of research administration, technology licensing and corporate liaison. “Our research entity has a three-part mission,” he makes clear. “First and foremost is the element of discovery; second is translation of that discovery, and third comes commercialization of the discovery and licensing the technology. Or to put it even more simply: a research team makes a new scientific advance, then we bring it to human beings, to help them.”

Chernow’s domain extends far beyond traditional NIH and foundation funding, and includes everything from negotiating Hopkins’ equity stakes in biotech start-up companies to licensing faculty discoveries to genetic engineering and pharmaceutical firms. There are also complex sponsored research and consulting contracts to oversee—with resulting conflict-of-interest rules and enforcement procedures, an emerging legal and ethical area in which Hopkins is considered a national leader.

But Chernow’s bailiwick also reaches to creating and marketing ideas and products: from publishing consumer-health books and newsletters to the InteliHealth online health information venture. He oversees the crafting of the new deals, partnerships and alliances involved in licensing Hopkins’ intellectual capital.

“Corporate co-venturing can be very positive as long as it is done in an ethically, legally and morally correct manner,” Chernow says. Most people in academic medicine are feeling more comfortable with industry,” he explains, citing the “entrepreneurial spirit” espoused by Dean Miller and JHU President William Brody. “It used to be considered selling out. No longer.”

These days, it’s considered an essential tactic of survival. The new corporate advisory group Chernow is putting together is part of this strategy; he’s already signed up 12 corporate presidents or senior vice presidents to serve on the advisory panel.

“We’ll be able to learn what they need from us, and they can learn what our needs are,” he explains. “Often corporate sponsorship is based on people-to-people contact. Johns Hopkins is a marquee name. I think a lot of corporations would be pleased to be associated with us.”

Starting the dayWhere the Rubber Meets the Road

One of the first meetings of this Monday morning—there are 10 on his docket today—finds Chernow in his office, huddled around a small round table with the agenda committee of the newly formed scientific advisory council.

“I want to create a sense of shared responsibility, of agreed priorities,” says Chernow about the role of the council, which is composed of “a group of the foremost scientists” in the School of Medicine and will advise Chernow and Dean Miller on research priorities. The council has had several meetings so far, infused with start-up enthusiasm, but now it’s time to get serious.

“This meeting is where the rubber meets the road, as they say,” Chernow tells the three faculty gathered at the table: Chi Van Dang, M.D., Ph.D., director of the division of hematology; Ann L. Hubbard, interim director of cell biology and anatomy; and Richard J. Traystman, Ph.D., University Distinguished Research Professor, anesthesiology and critical care medicine.

“I don’t want to lose the momentum.”

Chernow’s tone is friendly, collegial; he has shucked his suit jacket and works in shirtsleeves, with his staff ID badge hanging around his neck, suspended on a lanyard with “Hopkins” embroidered all over it . His office is not quite put together yet—there are still books and papers in boxes, plaques and pictures to be hung on the walls—there simply hasn’t been time. His desk and credenza have achieved that lived-in look, however, with piles of folders and papers vying for space with family photographs. (Chernow’s wife, Peggy, is an aspiring writer of mystery novels; his daughter, Shandee, is an undergraduate at Vanderbilt.) The cover of one loose-leaf binder on the desk bears the title: “How to Raise Money for Your Health Care Organization.”

Chernow's Baby

One of the prime tasks of the scientific advisory committee will be to offer guidance to Chernow and Miller on how to allocate the money Chernow hopes to raise through a new venture called the Fund for Medical Discovery. This is Chernow’s baby; he began working on it even before he took up official residence in his new office and has spent enormous effort getting it going—both convincing all the essential Hopkins players to buy into it and getting donors to put money into it—and already has raised several million dollars in donations.

Chernow in discussion

The primary purpose of the fund will be to support the work of young investigators, allowing them to do the preliminary studies necessary for proving themselves and securing their own NIH or other funding. It’s sort of venture capital investment in Hopkins’ own scientists, with the payoff promised down the road.

“Becoming a first-class researcher at this time is intimidating,” Chernow says sympathetically. “It’s tough to get grants, tough to compete for space, it’s daunting to create your own niche.”

While the mechanism for choosing which projects will win discovery fund support is still to be worked out, the fund also might be tapped for cushioning selected projects between funding cycles, according to Chernow, who says half of the fund’s principal will be placed in a quasi endowment while the other half is put to operational use.

“There is a great need for discretionary research funds that are not disease-oriented,” he explains.

The fund will serve not only a practical need, but a confidence-building purpose as well: “This fund will be tangible evidence of the dean’s support—proof that we’re paying attention,” says Chernow. “There has been a perception that the importance of research at Hopkins may have been diminished in the face of clinical needs,” says Chernow. “Part of my mission is to change that perception.”

Good news from the NIH is the topic of discussion around the scientific advisory agenda committee table right now. In the State of the Union address, President Clinton recommended a big increase in the NIH budget for each of the next five years, but it’s not yet clear how NIH intends to allocate the money. “And look, this just came in,” Chernow says, jumping up from his chair and hauling a pile of papers from his desk to the table. “We’re number one in the country in NIH funding again.”

The group pores over the numbers: Hopkins faculty brought in 687 NIH grants worth $210 million in 1997, $30 million and nearly 60 grants more than second-ranked University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine. (Of course, Chernow admits, it’s all how the numbers get sliced: Harvard is way down the list, but that’s because, for this accounting, NIH allows a school of medicine to include only one hospital affiliate; the rankings would stack up differently if all Harvard’s affiliated hospitals were included.) But University of Pennsylvania is moving up in the rankings fast, and Chernow sees it as “our biggest up-and-coming-rival.”

Chernow clearly has studied and analyzed the NIH numbers over the weekend since they arrived by fax on Friday. “Just in the last three months, we’re up 8.7 percent in research grants,” Chernow reports. “That outpaces the increase in clinical revenues for that period, which is up 3 percent.

“Reports of the imminent demise of research to the contrary,” he says, smiling.

The agenda group next tackles the perennially contentious issue of space allocation and how to broach it with the scientific advisory council. “When people tell me about their need for contiguous space, to keep their group together, I’m sympathetic, but I can only say, Get Real!,” Chernow says. “Until someone is willing to build us a Ross II research building, it’s just not going to happen.”

But he knows that space is crucial, and he’s trying to find a way to get a new research facility built. “To increase our market share and to maintain the level of discovery that’s always gone on here, we have to be out there recruiting docs who can compete well for NIH funding, and we need to have space to give them,” he says. And money to give them, too.

Born Fund-raiser

For a physician who’s focused his clinical work on the endocrine and metabolic problems of critical illness (one of his studies aimed to demonstrate the importance of administering magnesium to patients undergoing open heart surgery), Chernow brings a surprising amount of experience in raising money. Before coming to Baltimore in 1990 to join Hopkins and serve as physician in chief at Sinai, he was an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, where he directed the course on intensive care medicine and headed up an anesthesia research laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Seven years ago, he cofounded a biopharmaceutical company, EntreMed, and received a solid education in the ways of raising capital and operating in the corporate sphere.

His fund-raising skills have been sharpened by his duties as president of the Chest Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians (last year he was president of the ACCP) and as a board member of the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore.

“Bart’s entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with an erudite approach to problem-solving, and an engaging and enthusiastic style make him the perfect person for the combined responsibilities of this job,” says Dean Miller.

Now, Chernow glances at an index card with his day’s schedule printed on it, slips it back into his shirt pocket, and wraps up the agenda meeting with a quick summary.

“Need to attend to the next daily dilemma,” he says breezily, gathering up a sheaf of papers under his arm and striding out to the next appointment.

The next appointment is indeed problematic. Chernow needs to smooth over some turf squabbles. A funding agency has asked for some retooling and streamlining of the administration and operations of one of the groups he oversees, but these changes have created a boundary dispute between two clinical departments. “This can’t be a we-they situation,” Chernow says to the medical coordinators. “I’m trying to be a good guy, I’m just trying to help—believe me. I don’t know the history of this.”

The assembled doctors, all veterans of Hopkins’ internal politics, explain to him the background of the dispute, the sensitivities involved, the perceived stakes. This is an important element in Chernow’s Hopkins education. It’s the kind of thing he needs to learn. In this case, he absorbs the problem and ends up dividing administrative responsibilities in a way that everyone is willing to accept.

He moves now to Blalock 10, standing before a gathering of the genetic medicine faculty, a multidisciplinary group of about 50 faculty members, to discuss progress toward creating—and funding—a new Institute of Genetic Medicine. Though a loosely structured genetic medicine group has existed for some years, the effort to consolidate has faltered under stopgap directorships. In fact, Chernow himself has now been named interim director and is making a big push to get things off the ground at last.

“We’re actually moving forward,” he tells the assembled faculty, and they seem pleased and excited. “That’s why last week I was up in New York City meeting with some very wealthy people, people for whom writing a million-dollar check could simply be a tax write-off.”

He’s hoping to raise $10 million, but there are some basic decisions to be made first: What should this new genetic medicine entitity be called: a center, an institute, or should it become a full-fledged academic department? Although there is broad sentiment for departmental status, Chernow offers a cold dose of political reality: It would take a long time to clear all the hurdles of becoming a department, and compounding that, while there are lots of endowed medical institutes in the world, there are very few endowed academic departments.

“And institute has a better scholarly ring than center,” Chernow tells them. “It also sounds better for fund-raising purposes.”

He poses questions and asks for comments, calling on the faculty by name—he seems to have a politician’s gift for remembering names. After an hour of discussion, he endorses the idea of holding a brain-storming retreat in the spring, but asks the group not to spend too much time and energy exploring how institutes are structured elsewhere. “Don’t study it to death,” he tells them. “You’re creating something novel to this place, with its own unique culture and circumstances.

“Those of you who’ve come to know me know there’s no moss that grows on the bottom of these shoes,” he says, pointing to his loafers. “I’m ready to move.”