Karen Davis: Breaking New Ground in the IMS

Karen Davis: Breaking New Ground in the IMS

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By: Jill Cates and Shayne Greenberg

Over the past 16 years, Dr. Karen Davis has played a pivotal role in some of the most ground-breaking changes at the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at the University of Toronto (U of T). Since she first joined the IMS in 1996, the institute has undergone radical changes in curriculum, student body, and faculty, and is now on an exciting new trajectory for the future. Davis has been a driving force behind the evolution of the IMS through her role as Graduate Coordinator from 2002-2009, and as Associate Director from 2009-2012.

Davis began her scientific career after completing her PhD in the Department of Physiology at U of T in 1988. She pursued two post-doctoral fellowships at Johns Hopkins University and U of T, and was appointed as Assistant Professor in Surgery in 1995. Davis joined the IMS faculty as a Principal Investigator in 1996, while her role as an administrator began as a member of the Student Admissions Committee at the IMS. At the time, the institute was in its early stages of evolution and expansion. “If you trace back to 1996, the biggest change [in the department] has been growth,” Davis explains. “Since that time, the student and faculty body of the IMS has nearly tripled.” In fact, the IMS is currently the largest graduate unit in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. In addition to the expansion of the IMS, Davis has witnessed a change in educational background of the student population. The IMS was first established in 1974 as a conduit graduate unit consisting of residents and other MDs who were trained by clinical faculty who had their academic appointments in a clinical department, but did not have graduate (i.e. SGS) appointments. Over the past decade, the institute has evolved to incorporate both clinical and basic science faculty and students. Davis clarifies, “Now, half of IMS enrolment consists of students from a basic science background, the other half being students who have graduated with an MD.” The recent development of new collaborative and professional programs—such as Biomedical Communication, Bioethics, and Medical Radiation Science—is evidence of the increasing diversity and multi-disciplinary nature of the IMS.

In 2002, Davis was appointed Graduate Coordinator of the IMS. Her role was largely student-focused, involving responsibilities such as admitting new students, providing current students with academic advice, and disseminating new policies and procedures to students and faculty. A key responsibility of a graduate coordinator is conducting student interviews as part of the admissions process. “The IMS is one of the few graduate units, or perhaps only, that interviews each and every applicant,” Davis proudly explains. “We have maintained this interview process to ensure the highest calibre of students, and to provide an initial personal interaction between the applicant and the IMS.” These high standards are reflected in the Graduate Student Oath, a type of “professional honour code” that Davis, along with former IMS Graduate Coordinator Dr. Mary Seeman, initiated in 2007. Adapted from the Hippocratic Oath in medicine and other professional oaths, the Graduate Student Oath is tailored to values of biomedical research and “encourages awareness and discussion of the social and moral responsibilities of [graduate] students.”(1) In particular, the oath emphasizes community, professionalism, and ethical conduct in graduate training—all of which are important values of the IMS. As current IMS students know, the Graduate Student Oath is recited in unison by all incoming students during orientation at the start of graduate training.

From co-creating the Graduate Student Oath, to interviewing prospective applicants, to meeting with current students on a weekly basis, Davis realized that her role as a graduate coordinator required a heavy time commitment that proved to be a setback in supervising her rapidly growing pain research lab at Toronto Western Hospital. After seven productive years, she was ready to leave her position as Graduate Coordinator and retire from administration. However, the Director of IMS at the time, Dr. Ori Rotstein, encouraged Davis to become Associate Director as an opportunity to use her to talents from an entirely different angle—shifting the focus from the students to the faculty. In 2009, Davis made the decision to step down as Graduate Coordinator and take on the role of Associate Director.

The Associate Director is responsible for faculty appointments, training, and improving the academic environment at the IMS. It was a dynamic role for Davis, rewarding yet challenging: “There was a lot of activity and change during the time I took on the role of Associate Director—the end of Ori Rotstein’s decade-long term as Director, the search for a new director, and the turnover in staff.” The transition between directors—from Dr. Ori Rotstein to Dr. Allan Kaplan—involved rigorous self-study and internal review, a process that “requires honesty in what’s working and what’s not working.” During this period of change, Davis was presented with the challenge of continuity, while meeting the needs of the students and faculty. Looking back, Davis sees this turnover in a positive light. “New blood is good for the system. It’s good to have new people come in and provide fresh ideas.”

In addition to the change in administration, Davis also oversaw changes in the program structure of the IMS. During her tenure, Davis contributed to modifications of the IMS seminar course and helped Dr. Howard Mount and Dr. Rotstein create the module system. The purpose of these “mini-course” modules is to promote the exploration of translational research and to expose students to new areas of research without an excessive course load. Such modules include Entrepreneurship 101, Qualitative Research, Animal Models of Human Disease, and Becoming an Editor of Your Own Work. Davis also conceptualized and is co-organizer of the popular Clinical Insights for Non-Clinicians module, modeled after her own positive experiences as a basic scientist working in a clinical environment. These modules are a first step towards providing graduate students with opportunities to explore different career paths and expanding their training in translational research. Moving forward, Davis feels that the IMS should provide opportunities for students to explore career options outside of academia, including government, policy-making, industry, business, pharmaceuticals, writing, media and communication, and journal editing. “We need to be honest about what jobs are out there,” Davis says. Creating these opportunities for students will better prepare them for their future career.

Davis’ dedication and passion as an administrator has been the catalyst for bringing change to the IMS—a five-year strategic plan to set the institute on a new course. The goals of this project are varied but the objective is clear: to continue the growth of the IMS and gain world recognition for its achievements, while grounding itself as the centre for translational research at U of T.

Though Davis stepped down from her role as Associate Director in 2012, she is by no means slowing down as a scientist. Focusing her time back in the lab, she is an active member within the research community. Her involvement continues on the advisory boards of numerous granting agencies and groups, such as CIHR, Brain Canada, and the International Association for Study of Pain. While no longer a formal member of the IMS administration, Davis’ work as an administrator—from the IMS Graduate Student Oath, to the development of modules, to the expansion of the IMS as a multi-disciplinary institute—will play a pivotal role in the future growth and development of the IMS.

1. Davis KD, Seeman MV, Chapman J, Rotstein OD. A graduate student oath. Science. 2008;320(5883):1587-8. Epub 2008/06/21.