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The In

Innovations and innovators come in all forms. In each issue of Texas Innovator, The In Crowd will help bring you a little closer to some of Texas' brightest innovators, their perspective on why Texas is ideal for new approaches and even tips on fueling the creative mind inside us all.

Mary Ellen Weber
– Vice President for Government Affairs and Policy, UT Southwestern Medical School

Mary Ellen Weber

Even in an uncertain economy, university research programs continue seeking solutions to medical, social and environmental questions around the world. Medical solutions certainly rank near the top of that list, and University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas is among the state’s top research facilities.

“UT Southwestern is the flagship medical school in the state of Texas,” says Mary Ellen Weber, vice president for Government Affairs and Policy at UT Southwestern.

While tiny in comparison with the University of Texas’ main campus, UT Southwestern plays a huge role in tomorrow’s medicine, Weber says. The school is responsible for about $400 million in annual research – almost as much as UT Austin – and trains about 2,000 medical students, Ph.D. biomedical students and students in fields such as physical therapy and rehabilitation.

“One of the challenges for Texas medical schools is that we’re not on a main campus like many well-known medical schools around the country,” says Weber. “We have to work that much harder for name recognition, for recruitment.”

UT Southwestern has pioneered research in obesity, diabetes and metabolism with discoveries that include using leptin, a protein hormone, to control type 1 diabetes and even reverse diabetic shock. Researchers also discovered that fructose, a common sweetener, increases fat production for hours. Molecular research at UT Southwestern has also led to groundbreaking treatment research for heart disease, neurological disorders and cancer.

It’s the creative work behind the scenes that most never see that facilitates UT Southwestern’s research, work that includes recruiting researchers and securing funding for their research efforts, even in difficult economic times.

“When times are tough, both individuals and governments have to invest in the right place,” she says. “This is our primary message when we go to the Texas Legislature for funding. The message is never, ‘We’re hurting.’ Instead, we tout our expertise, why we are unique in Texas and what we can deliver to Texas and its people.”

Getting this message to resonate is a challenge, Weber says, adding that during the recent legislative session, much effort was made to create more “tier-one” universities, an important aspiration for Texas’ future.

“Being one of Texas’ top schools can make it tougher, not easier,” she says. “An equally important aspiration for a state the size and stature of Texas is to have truly elite schools – schools that rank not just in the top tier, but rank among the top few in the nation. For this to happen, commensurate state investment in its current top universities will be essential.”

Weber, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of two space shuttle missions, knows plenty about innovation and the importance of teamwork. She credits UT Southwestern’s people with driving the institution to greatness and says their commitment to sharing information and ideas spearheads research efforts across the campus.

“To really be new and innovative, you need collaboration of ideas,” says Weber. “The collaborative environment is one of the most effective tools we have here, both for recruiting and for successful scientific discovery. Most discoveries are made at the intersection of different fields. What’s unique about UT Southwestern is that scientists here have excellent opportunities to interface with other fields and collaborate.”

Weber points out that anyone at any institution can do that, but adds that UT Southwestern is built to integrate collaboration. The buildings themselves are connected floor by floor, so that researchers don’t have to leave buildings to get to other scientists, and the culture is such that research “silos” are simply not tolerated.

“That started at the top with our leadership when we went from being an army barracks to our state-of-the-art facility,” she says. “Here, collaboration isn’t suggested, it’s required.”

For more information about UT Southwestern Medical Center, visit their Web site.

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