New Schulich dean finds lessons in crisis

Frank Neufeld // Western News

On May 1, Dr. John Yoo stepped into his new role as Dean of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry during an unprecedented moment in human history.

In today’s pandemic, Dr. John Yoo sees important lessons for tomorrow.

“This is the worst health crisis we have faced in generations,” he said. “How we manage not just this crisis, but how we deal with things in the immediate post-pandemic phase, are going to be measures of how successful we were. We cannot forget the lessons that we are learning.”

On May 1, Yoo stepped into his new role as Dean of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry during an unprecedented moment in human history.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. In the weeks since then, more than 200,000 people have died, more than 3 million have been infected and millions more have isolated themselves as governments around the globe attempt to control the disease’s spread.

At Western, the pandemic has resulted in dramatic shifts in operations: in-person classes canceled and moved online; the majority of faculty and staff transitioned to working from home; landmark events postponed.

“This event has crystallized for me the important roles and responsibilities we have as a university and as a medical and dental school,” Yoo said. “Look at the front lines locally. The vast majority of them are our faculty and trainees. They are going out every single day into an environment with a lot of anxiety attached to it. But they are out there doing the job. Not enough can be said about those folks.”

Around the world, health-care professionals are being lauded by media and the public, including showers of cheers during shift changes in major cities. It is the kind of support that does more than boost morale – it also saves lives.

“I am concerned about the strain the pandemic is putting on people, both those on the front lines and off, like grocery store workers, delivery people, first responders of all types,” he said. “But there are very few things that actually go to enhancing wellness quite like knowing everybody is behind you. That goes a long, long way.”

Yoo noted that the world has awakened to contributions behind the scenes in the labs of medical researchers. His leadership at Western comes at a time when medical research related directly or indirectly to COVID-19 is bursting with possibilities.

“There are so many opportunities, so many ideas, so many creative things people want to,” he said. “It is truly inspiring.”

Among efforts across campus, a key part of the university’s contribution to the global fight is taking place in the Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation facility – known as ImPaKT – launched in July 2019.

Across its 7,000 square feet, ImPaKT is made up of Level P2+ and Level P3 containment facilities. Level P2+ facilities would handle pathogens more difficult to transmit, such as hepatitis and HIV. Level 3 designation represents pathogens that are more easily transmitted, such as tuberculosis, West Nile and COVID-19.

Currently, a multidisciplinary team of Western researchers is working on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in that facility.

“This is one of the only facilities like it in the country, one of very few on the planet with these capabilities,” Yoo said. “Out of the gate, literally weeks after it opened, this pandemic started to develop and, along with it came a flood of projects people wanted to collaborate with us on.”

Yoo stresses that nothing, including the classroom, remains untouched by the pandemic.

“We are on the front lines. We are in the lab. But we are also in the classroom,” he continued. “There is still a responsibility we have to our students. Right now, our concern is how we maintain their educational experience as best we can through non-traditional forms of learning.

“Our faculty had to change the way they interact with students in creative and incredibly efficient ways – and they have risen to that challenge.”

While online solutions eased some pressure, not every aspect of health education can go digital. Some training still requires face-to-face time between student and teacher in the hospital setting.

“Western and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, along with medical and dental schools across the country, are grappling with that and figuring out what’s the most appropriate way of reintroducing medical and dental students into the clinical setting in a safe, responsible way. That’s taking up a serious amount of energy by all.”

Overall, the pandemic has given the school pause to consider the best ways of delivering material. The traditional method, Yoo stressed, may not necessarily be the best way of doing it in the future.

“This whole crisis has forced us to re-evaluate the one-size-fits-all mindset where every single subject was taught in a traditional sense,” he said.

“In a way, you can view this as an experiment – not a voluntary experiment, but a giant social experiment, nevertheless. When the time is right, we need to look at the results of that experiment and figure out what worked well, what didn’t work well, and apply those going forward.”

Yoo believes, however, that the pandemic will draw interest into areas people maybe never have previously considered.

“Look at our School of Public Health. In the past, these people were almost unsung heroes in communities. Nobody really understood what they did. Go to CNN or CBC right now. All you will see are clinical epidemiologists and public health officials. We are educating the next generation of these experts in our own Master’s of Public Health program. It’s wonderful to see them as role models showcasing the role they play in society.”

For years to come, Yoo plans to remind everyone of the spirit of collaboration that has permeated all aspects of university life in recent weeks.

“It has been heartwarming to see the amount of collaboration that has occurred. If nothing else, people realize this pandemic affects every single person, no matter where you live or what you do,” he said. “There is an intense desire to be collaborative and cooperative – not just within our institution, but across institutions. Hopefully, that kind of energy continues afterwards.”

Yoo is heartened by a university community that has volunteered time, expertise and energy to help – from personal protective equipment (PPE) drives and producing face shields, to sweeping financial supports and creative internship and job opportunities for students during unprecedented times.

“Every single corner of this community is looking for ways to help and support front-line workers. It has been just amazing,” Yoo said. “When you ask for help, people rise up and take action. That’s a message we cannot forget.”