Lessons Learned during Pandemic: SibMed Acting Rector about University’s Third Mission
2020 became a stress test for all medical systems around the world. All institutions united to fight the pandemic including academia. Right before the start of the second wave of COVID-19 infections, SibMed leadership had changed and Evgeniy Kulikov was appointed as an acting rector. In an interview with RIA Tomsk, Evgeniy Kulikov shared his view on how science let University’s social mission to stand out and how can medical university assist the regional government in fighting the infection.
You have never been a public figure. Most people know you as Vice-rector for Research at SibMed. Thus, please, first, could you tell a couple of words about yourself, why did you decide to become a doctor?
I was born in Prokopyevsk, Kemerovo region. As a child, I dreamed of helping people, so I did not even think about any other profession, except for a doctor. Although there were no doctors among my relatives: my dad was an engineer, my mother was a kindergarten teacher. My dad had a friend who studied in Tomsk. His fascinating stories about the city were so convincing that I had no doubts that the only place I want to be is the Medical Department of the Siberian State Medical University.
In my first years at the university, I madly wanted to be lore. Back in time otolaryngology was something unattainable, elite. Then I joined a project team engaged in allergy and immunology studies, led by the Doctor of Medical Sciences, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Lyudmila M. Ogorodova. We were focused on bronchial asthma research and its severe resistant forms. I was fascinated with the serious and ambitious tasks that the team was working on. Moreover, that research was carried out at the national level. It was challenging to gain a foothold in the team; it was important to meet all requirements. For example, one of the major requirements in our team was knowledge of English. This was a ‘must-have’ for doing research at the international level. Thus, no choice - I had to learn it (laughs).
Have you ever worked as practising doctor?
Sure! This was necessary while doing science. As an assistant to the university division, I worked in the Therapeutic Department of the City Hospital No. 3. After that, I switched to the Pulmonary Department at the same hospital and finally for the last 1.5 years of my studies I practised in the Emergency Room.
Have you had any similar working experience (like current situation)?
I was working in the Emergency Room in 2009, exactly at that time there was H1N1 pandemic ‘Swine Flu’. I was among those doctors who had the first contact with the infection while accepting patients. Therefore, I am familiar with the situation of what is happening now.
It was, of course, invaluable experience to work with a team of doctors that have to take immediate decisions under pressure. After the Pandemic was over, I delved deeper into clinical research. In 2011, we came up with the idea to open the Clinical Research Center at SibMed. We were the first among the country's medical universities to have such a center.
You have become an acting rector in uncertain times, right in the middle between the ‘first’ and ‘second’ waves of coronavirus (in August 2020). What tasks did you set for yourself and the team?
In 2019, we developed a very ambitious University Strategic Development Program 2030. Its major focus was on research activities and the development of human resources. But 2020 has certainly shown that huge adjustments are needed. It was not scientific and educational activities that came to the foreground, but the so-called ‘University’s Third Mission’ meaning the social impact.
We have thrown all our efforts to help the region. We a well now in the region as providers of high-tech medical care, our doctors who are also professors often five consultations in difficult cases. When pandemic has started we shifted the focus on primary and emergency care. Currently, we help the region from 11 to 14 days a month by providing emergency care. Before the pandemic, we would have only 5 to 6 days a month.
How did you adjust the learning process? Training future doctors online is probably not the best study method…
Of course, in terms of practical training, online learning is not the best option, but we had to what is best for students and staff safety as recommended by the government. We cannot risk the health of our employees and students - this is our top priority. We started the fall semester with freshman and graduating courses in offline mode. Also, that concerned the Pharmacy Department because it has the least number of students. All lectures and seminars as planned in the schedule before the COVID-19 were kept but offered online. Practical classes (training video, experiments, demonstrations, etc) were recorded by the lecturers and given to students for self-study. Of course, some things are not possible to record and students must practise it themselves at the clinics. Thus, we changed the curriculum, so certain courses were moved for later times when students would have the opportunity to learn face-to-face with patients and doctors.
Part of our practical training is conducted in medical institutions around Tomsk. Many of those institutions were redesigned to receive COVID positive patients. This meant that our students were at risk. Thus, we had to constantly monitor the situation and respond quickly.
On the other hand, we speeded up the professional examination process to be able to offer exams for our student to gain access to nursing and pharmaceutical activities. After passing such an exam, students could immediately start working in the ‘red zone’. These exams now are held on a weekly basis.
And how did the students react? Did they show interest in helping our or, on the contrary, were they afraid of COVID-19 and preferred to stay home?
In fact, we see today that most of our senior students who meet the minimum qualification criteria, and the vast majority of residents (more than 80%) are employed in the regional healthcare system. They did not even question this. They applied directly for open positions as soon as we opened the call for medical professionals.
Well, for them this is a unique experience that they will not get anywhere else. A kind of work on the "front line" together with experienced supervisors.
The pandemic revealed a major problem for us. We have no consolidated database where we could see the regions’ medical institutions needs in medical personnel. The other day we discussed the creation of the Center for Career Development. This should help to monitor the job market. Currently, we also have a medical reserve that consists of our students ready to work (the total number now is 460 persons ready to work).
Science for People
Because of all the given circumstances, what did science look like at the university in 2020?
I will be honest with you that during the first half of the year when I was still in the position of Vice-rector for Research, I was afraid that we would have a decline in scientific activity. But in the end, we have even grown compared to the last year. We are successfully implementing our strategic plan and gradually increasing the number of articles published in high impact factor journals. Last year, the Ministry of Healthcare included our University in the list of leading Russian Universities, which made it possible to participate in the national project "Science".
In the framework of this project, we had received 20 million rubles to update our scientific infrastructure. We purchased equipment that allows conducting unique biomedical research, for example, using methods of directed genome editing to create cellular models of human diseases.
We are proud that, despite all the restrictions and difficulties that occurred Due to COVID-19 Pandemic, we managed to launch several extraordinary projects aimed at the development new set of skills among our staff and students. After completing this training we hope we will have a new cohort of young researchers capable of find partners and initiating international research projects.
Maybe you already have some new technologies that are ready to be presented to a wide audience?
For two years now, the University team works in the Laboratory of Medical Engineering Technologies, which is supervised by Advanced Research Foundation. And we are proud that our joint work has received a positive assessment from the Foundation heads that lead to the extension of the project period until the next year. The Laboratory has really grown from a single team into a full-fledged center for medical and engineering technologies, which allows us to irradiate skill and knowledge in other University projects, like “Digital Hospital”. We are moving towards becoming a federal-level platform. There is the international definition for technology approbation - "test-bed". We want to become a test bed and test the most modern digital technologies in our clinics. So, for example, access to quality medical care is a very pressing issue during the COVID-19. We have developed several services, for instance, online consultations with doctors practising in our clinics. This made it possible for Tomsk citizens living in remote areas to be able to contact the leading specialists of University Hospital while staying at home.
Do you keep in touch with the ex-University leadership?
Yes, of course, their opinion on what is happening in the university, their experience are important to us. Olga Kobyakova is always ready to advise if we have any questions, although she is quite busy in her new position as the head of a research center in Moscow. Vyacheslav Novitsky takes an active part in the life of the University. Currently, under his leadership we are working on the new development strategy for Univesity museums. For example, one absolutely unique SibMed History Museum was replicated online. We recorded an online tour together with prof. Novitsky.
How do you think the Pandemic has affected the way how people view the medical profession?
If last year we would say that computer sciences was probably the most popular speciality among prospective students, this year this situation changed. We saw this by the number of people enrolled in our university in 2020. More than 12 thousand applications from applicants from 69 regions of the Russian Federation and 19 countries of the world were submitted to the SibMed, which is 2000 applications more than last year. This is encouraging.