Close-up: Dr. Mingyao Liu
By Brittany Campbell
Photograph courtesy of Chung Ho Leung
Dr. Mingyao Liu
Professor of Surgery, Medicine and Physiology
Associate Director, Institute of Medical Science
Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
Head, Respiratory and Critical Care Research Group
Toronto General Research Institute, University Health Network
When I arrived at his office on the second floor of the MaRS building, I did not expect Dr. Mingyao Liu to rise from his desk and offer to hang my coat for me upon greeting. It was the first of many signs I noticed, throughout the interview, of a director who cares deeply for the students he oversees.
“So, what can I do for you today?” he asks, folding his hands on his desk across from me. I informed Dr. Liu that I wanted to learn more about his position, his responsibilities, and his background that prepared him for his new position as the Associate Director of the Institute of Medical Science (IMS). Dr. Liu not only gave me biographical information, but also a peek into the science-fiction-like research he oversees, plans for the future of the IMS, and attributes he hopes to see in future leaders of research and medicine.
Dr. Liu has had various academic administrative roles over the years at the University of Toronto and is a full Professor of Surgery in the Department of Physiology and Medicine. He has been the newly appointed Associate Director for just under a year now, but Dr. Liu has been involved with the IMS since 2000, starting out as the sole graduate coordinator. His work included admissions, curriculum, and degree facilitation for five years until he took on the position of Associate Dean for the School of Graduate Studies for the next two years. Dr. Liu then moved to the Faculty of Medicine to serve as the Director for International Research Relations, and finally returned to the IMS to assume his current position. Leading up to his current coordinative and academic roles, Dr. Liu obtained his M.D. in 1983 and a M.Sc. in 1986.
As students, we report to our supervisors and graduate coordinators. Our supervisors, however, report to Dr. Liu. He is in charge of over 600 faculty, each with a five-year appointment. This means that every year, over 120 faculty contracts need to be reviewed for renewal. Dr. Liu and the Appointment Committee reviews applications and evaluates faculty in terms of research productivity, funding, and graduate supervision. The IMS has two primary types of memberships that faculty can have: Regular Member (Full or Associate) and Restricted Member. The former has many more members than the latter and is composed of supervisors that are independent researchers who are qualified to train and guide students in their career development. Restricted members are primarily teachers, offering expertise in Program Advisory Committee meetings and teaching courses in the Professional Masters Programs, without necessarily having independent research funding. Restricted memberships are often used as a training ground for a Regular Associate membership.
Dr. Liu admits that one challenge in his role is orienting new faculty members into such a large research community. The IMS spans different hospital sites with what Dr. Liu calls different “research cultures.” For example, The Hospital for Sick Children is strongly rooted in cellular and molecular biology research, Toronto Western Hospital is well-known for neuroimaging and autoimmune research, and Toronto General Hospital (TGH) is at the cutting-edge of transplantation and translational research. Dr. Liu’s own research is based out of TGH, where he is developing state-of-the-art lung transplantation models.
“The organ donation rate is very low, almost flat over the decades,” Dr. Liu informs me. “In addition, the majority of the lungs are injured, infected with pneumonia, carry blood clots, or are otherwise unsuitable for transplantation.” He goes on to tell me that in the past, the only thing separating a bad lung from a good lung was a solid clinical inspection. Now—as one half of a fruitful 20 year partnership with the Surgeon-in-Chief of the University Health Network (UHN), Dr. Shaf Keshavjee—Dr. Liu and their team have developed a technique called “ex-vivo lung perfusion.” Donated lungs deemed subpar for transplant initially are kept alive outside the body while being assessed, and be treated as necessary with high dose antibiotics, cleared of blood clots, or given other aggressive treatments to raise the lung to successful transplantation standards with no risk of side effects to the recipient. “The goal is to maximize the number of successful transplantations without expanding the donor pool,” he says. These new transplant techniques have been successfully applied to over 100 patients to date. Moreover, they have been able to use approximately 45% of donated lungs for transplant compared with the 15% of donated lungs that are typically usable.
The breakthroughs do not stop there. Long term goals include assessing and using every lung in a hierarchal fashion: lungs in good condition can be transplanted right away, lungs that need improvement will be put through ex-vivo treatments, and lungs that are beyond repair can hopefully be de-cellularized and rebuilt using tissue engineering technology. Eventually this team plans to expand and use modified versions of the ex-vivo technique on other organs like the liver, heart and kidneys. He describes his research as “very translational” and explains that this type of research success is only possible with a large team of people that span several areas of expertise. From clinician-scientists and researchers, to engineers and biotechnologists, to venture capitalists and fundraising managers, medical research today is an ever-expanding team of people and Dr. Liu feels that our education system struggles to meet the demand.
“Instead of encouraging everyone to become a future professor, we need to help people to realize that there are numerous careers in health care. We need to move away from the doctor-professor binary,” he cautions. Although Dr. Liu predicts a significant opening in faculty positions as the older generation retires, he believes that we still need to train students for a wider range of positions. “We can’t continue to be proud of research-heavy, course-light programs. We need to offer more professional-based graduate programs to train students to occupy different niches in the healthcare field,” he remarks. He notes that just under half of the province’s money goes to hospitals and the health care industry, and that the UHN and The Hospital for Sick Children are among the top 15 biggest businesses in the province. His message to students is that there is room for everyone in health care and that it is simply a matter of better career education and mentoring. Dr. Liu himself has undertaken this challenge, along with the other senior academic administrators at the University of Toronto, to introduce the new Professional Master’s program in Translational Science to the IMS. He believes experts in translation are the future research leaders and has pointed the faculty in the direction of training them.
We ended with a light-hearted discussion about his desired qualities in our future leaders. He held both hands out in front of him and shook them. “Good hands,” he says, “a great researcher has to have good hands and a smart head. A big heart too, but usually those three things do not come to the same person.” I nod in response. “For those who do clinical care, perhaps good hands and a big heart are enough….” he muses. “For those who are very ambitious, there is the clinician-scientist route.” Regardless of their career choice, Dr. Liu promises to help his students in their career development, through open discussions and good direction, and recommends other principal investigators to do the same. “Don’t be afraid to discuss your goals,” he advises, “we want to know and we want to help. You are the future leaders.”