Future Forward


Edited by Aviva Meyerowitz

Dean Robert A. Harrington, M.D., in profile, smiling as he looks out a window onto the Weill Cornell Medicine campus.
Photos: John Abbott

Dr. Robert A. Harrington, the new Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University, talks candidly about pushing the boundaries of innovation.

On Sept. 12, Dr. Robert A. Harrington became the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University.

Prior to this appointment, Dr. Harrington, a cardiologist, was the Arthur L. Bloomfield Professor of Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine at Stanford University. He previously served as the Richard Sean Stack, M.D. Distinguished Professor and director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute at Duke University. In August, he met online with Impact’s editors to discuss his forthcoming arrival and his vision for Weill Cornell Medicine.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Impact: You have had an extraordinary career. What drew you to Weill Cornell Medicine?

Dr. Harrington: I like to say that I should follow the advice that I give other people. When people come to me and say, “Hey, I’m looking at an opportunity, can you help me think through it?” I always ask them to think about two things: Is it going to give you experiences, knowledge and expertise that will deepen what you do, whether that’s clinical medicine, research, education or leadership? Or is it going to extend you and broaden your field of vision?

As I learned about where Weill Cornell Medicine was in its journey and where it wanted to be, I had to listen to my own advice. This is an opportunity, I think, that both extends my scope of responsibilities and deepens me. When you have that type of opportunity at a great place that wants to be greater, and that’s attached to fantastic institutions like Cornell University as the parent organization and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital as the health care delivery partner, that’s pretty attractive. This position really offered me the opportunity to think more broadly, to think deeper about certain issues and to really extend myself.

Dean Robert A. Harrington, M.D., speaking with a woman.

What do you see as the top priorities for academic medicine today?

Academic medical systems have a very special place in American society and in the ecosphere of health care, science and education. We play a special role: to be leaders, innovators and push the boundaries across our mission areas of delivering excellent clinical care, leading research efforts and educating the next generation of medical, scientific and health care leaders. I also add a fourth, which is called community partnerships — specifically, how do we think in a very deep way about the people and the communities that we serve?

You previously directed the Duke Clinical Research Institute. What are some of the considerations for our institution and the patients that we serve in the city as well as its outer boroughs, as you start to steer Weill Cornell Medicine’s research portfolio?

A key part of what a medical college ought to be doing is asking, how do we use data to inform how we take care of people or populations? And how do we do the research that’s needed?

At Weill Cornell Medicine, there’s a great opportunity to extend what we’re doing in clinical research. How are we going to use clinical trials, large outcomes studies and research in health services, health economics, health policy and health law? How do we use all of that clinical investigation to inform better care of patients and populations? How do we engage populations in the process of clinical investigation so that we can be better informed when we’re offering care or policy suggestions?

One of the things that’s clear in all the years I’ve been a clinical investigator is that you need diverse patient populations if you’re going to get the best insights into how to offer up care. The richness of the diversity of New York City is an obvious advantage to a clinical researcher here.

There’s also issues of historic distrust of the research process. There are issues of unfamiliarity with what research actually means, so I see that as an opportunity to really think through those issues in a way that encourages our faculty, staff and students to lead some of these conversations about how we do clinical investigation better. 

Weill Cornell Medicine is rich in partnerships and affiliations, from our hospital partner NewYork-Presbyterian, to close working relationships with neighbors Memorial Sloan Kettering, The Rockefeller University and Hospital for Special Surgery — and we of course are part of Cornell University, and have locations overseas. How might these relationships evolve in the coming years?

The opportunities for tightening collaborative relationships is one of the things that really excited me about Weill Cornell Medicine. We have amazing opportunities to think about how we bring together some of the assets of these different partnerships to make us all better, to do more interesting research, to potentially come up with new care ideas, and to educate in a more collaborative, diverse way.

Part of my role will be to figure out how we do more together. I’m a huge believer that doing it together is way better and more effective and likely creates way better outcomes than people trying to do things on their own. I’m particularly excited about the relationship with Cornell Tech and seeing how we can strengthen relationships between what I’ll call the data sciences, engineering and medicine.

As for our overseas partnerships, medical centers in the United States have a global, social responsibility. We are very fortunate to have resources and investments in our academic health systems that are different than in much of the world. The major diseases of the U.S. are the major diseases of the globe, and so we ought to be looking for how we can all learn from each other and solve problems from a global perspective.

You have a strong interest in artificial intelligence (AI), computational work, and their intersections with medicine. It sounds like you have potentially a lot of ideas about how we might be able to harness that technology.

There are few things in medicine today that excite me more than the potential of discovery science — especially advanced computation, which includes AI and machine learning in health care — to improve the care we already provide, to facilitate breakthroughs in our treatment of disease, and even to create entirely new ways of thinking about medicine. The tools of data science, which includes things like AI, are really where the boundaries of medicine are going to be pushed, and where I predict enormous growth. Whether you’re talking about how you apply AI to discovery, to preventing illness, taking care of patients or as an educational tool, I think that’s all coming and I’m really excited about it. Weill Cornell Medicine has some of the key pieces, including a great parent university with a great engineering school and a president who’s a computer scientist. This is an awesome opportunity to think about how we support and connect all those pieces.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is something that we’ve made substantial investments in that have shifted our culture quite a bit. Can you talk a little bit about why DEI is integral to academic medicine and how we can sustain and expand our commitments in this area?

If you look at the data on science, health care and business, when you bring a diverse group of individuals together — diverse ideas, background and experiences — you get better outcomes. Every aspect of that contributes to richer science, better health care and better education. There’s also a moral aspect of including people in conversations who previously haven’t been included, including communities who perhaps have not been offered the same opportunities.

To me, bringing together what’s right with what we know works is an important component of how I think about diversity. I think at a place like Weill Cornell Medicine, we should lead and we should not be shy to do so.

Dean Robert A. Harrington, M.D., with buildings behind him.

How can academic medical centers address challenges that bear upon its pipeline of future physicians and their well-being — including the shortage of doctors, the need to increase representation of historically underrepresented people in STEM, and burnout — during medical education and training?

As we’re thinking about a more diverse scientific and medical workforce, we have to be thinking about and investing in the pipeline, and you can almost not be too early.

And you can’t just get people here, you have to support them. This is another area where a lot more work needs to be done. I understand the pressures of the electronic medical record — the joy that it’s given us in terms of being able to access information, but the burden it’s given us is being the people who input information. A place like Weill Cornell Medicine, with access to great engineers and great computer scientists, should be at the forefront of helping to figure that out because technology is both part of the issue and can be part of the solution.

We also have to think about different paradigms of training, different ways of thinking about work hours, workforce and more team-based care.

We understand that you’ve mentored more than 20 fellows. Can you talk more about mentoring — what it means to you and how you envision encouraging it here at Weill Cornell Medicine?

To me, mentorship is the foundation for academic success and maybe even academic well-being. I’ve been fortunate to have a team of mentors over the years that I still rely on. You might imagine that when you go through the thought process of considering moving across the country to a new institution, to a new role, it’s important that you get input from people who know you and who think about you in a certain way. I relied on my mentors to provide me with guidance and advice, and I think that’s an important part of one’s professional development.

I’ve taken a structured approach to mentorship where people, whether they’re fellows in training or residents or faculty members, should have a team that includes a content expert, a methods expert and someone who knows about your life and tries to help you put it all together. I spend a lot of time thinking about team mentorship, trying to help establish programs for people, and I suspect I will do the same at Weill Cornell Medicine.

We want to talk briefly about the clinical aspect of your job. What inspired you to become a cardiologist?

This will tell you how dull a guy I am: I became really excited by blood clotting and the role that it played in human diseases. The late ’80s through the ’90s were an amazing time as the role of blood clotting really moved into the cardiovascular setting, and so I made the decision to go into cardiology. It was a great time to do that because of new discoveries: thrombolytic therapy, angioplasty, a bunch of antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs.

The second is more personal: my mother had died of sudden cardiac death in her early 40s. While that has never been the conscious decision as to what me made go into cardiology, I suspect it weighed on my decision because I study why blood clots form and cause things like heart attack and sudden cardiac death.

Will you see patients at Weill Cornell Medicine?

Being a doctor is really important to me. If you were to meet me at a cocktail party and ask, “What do you do?” I’d say I’m a doctor because that’s my identity — I’m a clinician scientist. The best people I know doing clinical science are really good doctors and the best doctors I know are really good scientists, and I do think that they’re connected, so I intend to practice medicine.

One last question: What are you looking forward to about living in New York City?

I grew up in Boston, so I’m a city kid. My wife is not a city girl, but we’re looking forward to the food scene, the entertainment scene, the theater, the ballet. I’m definitely looking forward to Madison Square Garden and seeing my Duke Blue Devils come to their second home in New York. I’m looking forward to being close to family in Boston. New York City is an amazing place. I’m looking forward to a lot.

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