Good collaborators are why I stayed

An interview with Dr. Steven Kunkel on research at U-M Medical School

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In our inaugural episode of The Fundamentals, we talk with Dr. Steven Kunkel about why he chose to build his now 40+ year career at the University of Michigan, why U-M’s research community is so special, the Great Minds Greater Discoveries strategic research initiative, and more.

Resources

Find out more about the research stories mentioned at the top of the show at the links below:

Transcript

Kelly Malcom:

Welcome to The Fundamentals, a podcast where we will celebrate the research and researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School. I'm your host Kelly Malcolm.

Jordan Goebig:

And I'm Jordan Goebig.

Kelly Malcom:

And today we're excited to dive into our very first episode.

Jordan Goebig:

I know that the idea for this podcast existed before I came to campus, so I'm really looking forward to just soaking in all of the knowledge our first ever podcast guest will be touching on today.

Kelly Malcom:

I've had the pleasure of working with him for a few years and he's a hugely accomplished scientist and administrator, but incredibly humble and approachable. Before we introduce him and get into the show, let's talk about research here at Michigan Medicine. As a communicator, trying to decide what to highlight is like drinking from a fire hose. Even during the pandemic, our scientists managed to somehow churn out more than 8,000 publications. We do our best to let people know about the great minds and greater discoveries that originate here at the medical school and beyond. So before we meet the minds on our show, we're going to recap some recent publications that we found particularly interesting.

Jordan Goebig:

Yeah, so U-M research stories tend to come my way via social media posts that I'm working on for the medical school, and one story that actually made me stop and click on it because it just seemed so interesting, was that Michigan researchers are unraveling the mystery behind why one of the X chromosomes in females is silenced early in the developmental process, which may provide insights that could improve stem cell research. I thought this story was a perfect example of how our scientists are pushing beyond the fundamentals to make impactful discoveries.

Kelly Malcom:

A story I found interesting centered around a study that found a way to improve the accuracy of a COVID-19 diagnosis by using a person's exhaled breath.

Jordan Goebig:

I appreciate the variety of research we're going to be able to showcase this season, and I'm really looking forward to sharing more of these stories every episode. We plan to provide links in the show notes and we hope you enjoy reading more. Now let's get on to the show.

Kelly Malcom:

Today on the show, we're excited to host a scientist who has been at the University of Michigan for over 40 years. He's made a significant impact in the field of immunology and the study of inflammation. Having co-authored more than 600 manuscripts, contributed over 60 chapters to different books in the field, and presented hundreds of lectures as a visiting professor, all while serving as a principal investigator maintaining continuous NIH grants and taking on a number of leadership positions. Welcome Dr. Steve Kunkel, the Executive Vice Dean for Research at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Steve Kunkel:

Thank you, Kelly. I'm happy to be here.

Jordan Goebig:

Absolutely, Dr. Kunkel. We thought your history within the knowledge of the research enterprise at Michigan would provide a perfect introduction to the medical school for our listeners. So let's start there. I would love to know what led you down the path of inflammation and immunology?

Steve Kunkel:

So I've always had a passion for science, and when I finished my undergraduate degree in biology, I knew that I wanted to go on for an advanced degree. I had a mentor in undergraduate who was an immunologist, and he put me in touch with a professor at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Peter Ward, who was an internationally known immunologist who studied lung inflammation. So I got in contact with Dr. Ward, he offered me a postdoctoral position, and that launched my career. The interesting thing about that is Dr. Peter Ward ended up being the chair of pathology here at the University of Michigan, and actually recruited me to Michigan when he came back in the early eighties.

Jordan Goebig:

Very interesting. I read your bio, that was not all part of it, so I'm glad I got to learn a little bit about you. I know, Kelly, we said we were going to do a back and forth, but I feel like you segued really nicely into my next question, which was that I read that you had joined the university in 1980, but I'd love to hear why you decided to stay because you've spanned such a long time here with your career, which is incredible.

Steve Kunkel:

So having decided to stay here was an easy choice. I think when people initially come early in their career, they expect to be at their first institution for 3, 4, 5 years and then potentially move on. But what I found is that this research community here was extremely welcoming, extremely collaborative, and I'll get into a little bit later some of our research strategies. But one of the aspects of whether people stay at an institution or leave is dependent upon the research community that they belong to, those collaborators which become instrumental to their career. Over my first five years here, I established a lot of very, very close colleagues and it would've been very hard for me to go to another institution and reproduce the number of collaborators I had here at Michigan. So I ended up staying. Then by the time I got more well known and had job offers, I had kids in high school who told me, "Dad, you can go wherever you want. We're staying in Ann Arbor."

Jordan Goebig:

That's great. That's good to hear. As somebody who just moved here, it's nice to hear what a wonderful experience you've had.

Kelly Malcom:

So you have a great perspective on this, I think. In your opinion, how has the overall research landscape changed over the past 40 years that you've been here?

Steve Kunkel:

Yeah, that's a great question. I think one of the things with regard to research is driven by the technology you have. We often revisit old questions because at the time that we were initially studying them, we really didn't have the instrumentations or the technology to address them. So old questions that we were addressing 15, 20 years ago bubble up again and we start readdressing them again with a different approach using new state-of-the art technology that's available.

Jordan Goebig:

So over a decade ago now, the university announced that they were taking over the former Pfizer campus in Ann Arbor. Could you tell us a little bit about what this deal entailed and how it would impact the medical school's research?

Steve Kunkel:

Right. I think taking over the old Pfizer site, which is now the North Campus Research Complex, has been a game changer for us. I remember in 2008 I had a lot of close friends that worked for Pfizer, and one day they got called into the cafeteria. The CEO of Pfizer had a big teleconference and basically said, "We're shuttering the site. Many of you will get an offer to stay with us, but move somewhere else and many of you will be terminated." That sent a shiver down all of Ann Arbor and the academic community. So that site set vacant for almost a year, and the university tried very hard to find another pharmaceutical company that would partner with us and would actually purchase that site. Well, if any of you remember what was going on in 2008 and 2009, it was the biggest recession downturn outside of the Great Depression that happened back in the twenties and leading into the thirties.

So finally the University of Michigan decided that they would have a negotiation with Pfizer, and they ended up buying that entire site for $108 million, which was pennies on the dollar. It was a real fire sale, and it became a game changer for us. We're still mowing 174 acres of grass out there, which means that's the future for research and building out there. We actually got a couple dozen buildings, the last two were just renovated recently, and we have about 170 wet labs that are now located out there. We have individuals from all over the different 19 schools and colleges that have joined us out there. So that purchase site was a real game changer for us.

Jordan Goebig:

I'm just curious, I didn't look into the history enough. How many people were employed?

Steve Kunkel:

They had a couple thousand people that were... They said... And they skimmed. They took the heavy producers and said, "We'll move you to Groton, Connecticut, or a couple places." The other ones were just terminated. It was good for us though too, because we picked up dozens of their high end scientists that are with us here today. Many-

Jordan Goebig:

That's what I was wondering.

Steve Kunkel:

... especially in chemistry, medicinal chemistry and around. So we picked up a lot of talent from there.

Jordan Goebig:

Yeah, that's a really cool story.

Steve Kunkel:

Yeah, it is.

Jordan Goebig:

What a sad thing. That was a tough time to turn it around.

Steve Kunkel:

I keep telling our people we should really write that up and put it in the Chronicles of Higher Education or something of what we purchased, what we got and what we did with that site.

Jordan Goebig:

Yeah. Wow.

Kelly Malcom:

So we have really great infrastructure in place. Last year I know you announced a new strategic research initiative called Great Minds Greater Discoveries, and as a part of that, have identified several priority areas. Those are neuroscience, eHealth, health equity, opioids and pain and inflammation, for our listeners. How were those areas of focus selected?

Steve Kunkel:

Those areas were selected on a couple of criteria. One, we wanted to keep investing in those areas where we had strength, like neuroscience. Neuroscience, research is not just conducted in the medical school. It spreads across the other schools and colleges. Matter of fact, the psychology department in LS&A is probably the number one ranked psychology department in the country, and its basis for its research is neuroscience. So we wanted to invest in areas where we had strength and can keep that going. On the other hand, we wanted to invest in new areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning and wearables. We've had great success in collaborating with scientists in the College of Engineering. We've established those links. They were doing artificial intelligence back with the Department of Defense 20 some years ago. They moved into autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence and they partnered with us telling the next frontier for using artificial intelligence is going to be medicine.

So that was one of the reasons we invested in that. Inflammation became an easy choice. One cannot name one disease process that really doesn't have an inflammatory component to that. A lot of the new drugs that are coming online address the inflammatory system. A lot of the immunotherapies to treat cancer is dependent upon understanding how immunology and inflammation work and how we can turn the inflammatory response and the inflammatory activity against tumor cells. So a lot of these investments were made in areas that we had strength, in areas that we had new strength, but old partners.

Kelly Malcom:

This next question is sort of a big one. How do we ensure that Michigan Medicine remains on the cutting edge of biomedical research? In that sense, what in your opinion, do our researchers need to answer the biggest questions?

Steve Kunkel:

So that is an important question to address and one of the things, we can invest in all the bricks and mortar we want around here, but we are only as good as the faculty, staff and learners that we have here to support that research. So we really want to make sure that we have those individuals who have that passion for science and not just the science, the bench work where you design those experiments, but how do we train that next generation of scientists with our postdoctoral fellows, our residents, and our graduate students? Those are our future and those are individuals that we need to make sure are going to be at our side going forward to make this place great and continue to make this place great.

Jordan Goebig:

So we're tugging along y'all. We're onto our third section. I'm going to flesh out this question a little bit more for you and give you some context around it. So when I listen to my Conan O'Brien podcast, as I mentioned earlier, they have, insert celebrity name, Adam Sandler, and he's really on there because he is plugging his comedy special even though they had this lovely conversation about everything else. So I would like to give everybody who comes on this podcast an opportunity to plug something of their own, whether it's a project that they're specifically working on or a publication that they've recently had published. But something that I thought maybe you could speak to or give a shout out to, are there any specific programs that our researchers should be paying attention to up and coming that you want to plug right now on the show?

Steve Kunkel:

So one area that we have great strengths and I'd like to just give a big shout out to is our researchers that are studying diabetes. We have outstanding investigators in this space who have written grants that bring in multi, multi-millions of dollars of support. We are recognized around the world in a lot of areas of research, but especially in the areas of diabetes. One of the individuals who's been running one of the diabetes center, Martin Myers, is studying some of the neurological effects of diabetes. One of the consequences that many of the listeners may not realize is that there are so many side diseases that are caused by diabetes. Everything from vascular diseases to eye diseases to hearing loss, the list goes on and on and on. So to get our handle around what causes diabetes and how we can treat that has a lot of downstream effects on affecting other diseases and understanding how these diseases function.

Kelly Malcom:

I believe you are still a practicing researcher, as we mentioned in the intro. What really keeps you going each day as a scientist and as a leader at the medical school?

Steve Kunkel:

I think as a scientist, there's two things. One of the things I'm most proud of is not the many publications that I've had, but it's the people and the lives I've touched, and those people whose lives have touched me. I can say one of the most outstanding things I've done is to be able to seed investigators around the world with faculty positions. I've had a conduit to Brazil for a number of years, a conduit to Japan. In Japan right now I have two post-fellows who are chairs of departments, one post-fellow who's the dean of a medical school in Japan. So being able to train the next generation of scientists has been extremely important for me. With regards to making discoveries, one of the things that becomes an investigator's high is to do an experiment that actually turns out to be correct. You get a little peek of nature that no one else has ever seen before. Sometimes it's a pretty small peek at nature, but it's exhilarating.

Jordan Goebig:

As we're beginning to wrap up the episode, is there any other projects, programs, people, areas of research that you want to give another shout out to and make sure that we discuss?

Steve Kunkel:

Like I mentioned, we have great strengths across the medical school. Our Institute for Health Policies and Innovation is totally outstanding. These are the individuals who look at databases and through that database, they interrogate and collect information that leads to the next generation of policies that are set. So we probably lead, at least in the Midwest and likely the whole US, in establishing policies through our IHPI. Another area that we have significant strength in is looking at the mechanism of how genes are expressed. This becomes really basic science. There's a whole exploding area called epigenetics that basically it's how there are alterations in the DNA and RNA that really leads to the multiplicity of different genes and how these genes are both expressed and regulated. We have great strengths in that area too.

Kelly Malcom:

One of the things I was still curious about is your role as an administrator. How has that gone for you and what are the things that you're most proud of or that you're most interested in letting people know about?

Steve Kunkel:

So I actually cut my teeth in administration. That goes back to about 1995 when I became the associate dean of graduate education, handling all of the PhD programs in the biological sciences. I was there for a number of years. Matter of fact, I was the interim dean of Rackham for two years, I didn't want to throw my hat in the ring to become the dean, but it was important that I became the associate dean. One of the things that really happened is that because Rackham has programs, I think they have about 150 PhD programs, I got to know individuals in the history department, the english department who remained fast friends to this day. Starting in 2009 I was asked by then Dean Jim Woolliscroft, to come over to the medical school, because they were reorganizing the medical school to put senior associate deans into the research program, the clinical program and the education program.

I worked with David Spahlinger, who at that time was the senior associate dean for clinical affairs and myself in research going forward. Then when they recruited Dean Runge here, they reorganized again and created executive vice deans for education and faculty affairs, executive vice deans for research and executive vice deans for clinical affairs. So I've had the ability to walk in a lot of investigator shoes, know what some of the needs are for research, and I thought I could use that and expand that into an administrative role. I've been able to work with some incredible people in the administrative arm, especially in the Office of Research, to actually advance and help our faculty conduct their research.

Jordan Goebig:

So I came from the University of Illinois and several of my good friends are post-doctoral researchers at this point in their career. I feel like some of them have really good leadership qualities, but they're always really nervous about stepping into those roles. They say a good politician is one who doesn't want to actually run for office, and sometimes I feel like the good administrators are sitting there just doing their research in their labs. So what advice would you give to those young researchers and junior faculty to pursue leadership roles, administrative roles and realize that they could do those things and have a positive impact in research?

Steve Kunkel:

First of all, there is no one-to-one correlation between being a great researcher and being a great administrator. Matter of fact, I've known a lot of outstanding scientists who really failed at being an administrator. One of the things that we have to keep in mind to run a research lab, and I want to put a good spin on this, you have to be a little bit selfish. You don't want to give out information to your competitors and get scooped on research. You have to stay the course. You have to have a burning passion to running your lab and keeping the people that are working in your lab working at the bench towards that goal. But on the other hand, there is the opportunity to use the expertise.

I mentioned before that to have walked in research scientists' shoes becomes important. They know what it feels like to get a grant. They know what it feels like to not get a grant, and I've been down both those paths. So, having the experience of being in a successful lab at a successful place like Michigan really sets you up if you really want to pursue the path of an administrator, gives you that expertise to be able to understand what needs to be done, what policies need to be set, what expertise needs to be available, and what instrumentation needs to be available to be successful as a research scientist.

Jordan Goebig:

What a lovely episode this has been with you, Dr. Kunkel. I feel like I've learned so many new things about the university and your research. Thank you.

Kelly Malcom:

Well, Dr. Kunkel, thank you so much. It was a pleasure to have you in today for our inaugural episode of The Fundamentals. We really appreciate your time.

Steve Kunkel:

So this was fun and I really appreciate you looking out for me and having me come in to do this first podcast with you all.

Kelly Malcom:

Thanks for listening. The Fundamentals is part of the Michigan Medicine Podcast Network, and produced by the Michigan Medicine Department of Communication in partnership with the University of Michigan Medical School. Find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Learn more about other exciting research happening at the University of Michigan, by checking out Health Lab, Michigan Medicine's daily online publication featuring news and stories about the future of healthcare.


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