Beatrice Beck Schimmer (55) takes a sip of coffee. She’s taken time out of her busy schedule for this interview, but greets us with an unhurried warmth. “I’m looking forward to the new role,” she says, beaming with delight. The role she’s referring to is a position that is totally new at UZH. And it’s an influential position. A function with overall responsibility for matters concerning university medicine in the Zurich area has previously not existed. Beatrice Beck Schimmer will take up this new position from August for the 2018 to 2022 term. This position also means she’ll be a member of the Executive Board of the University.
Her first goal is to continue developing a fledgling research strategy for the university medicine of the future. She wants to do this by realigning and stepping up cooperation between UZH, the University's four hospitals and ETH Zurich, especially in terms of the three pillars of research, teaching and healthcare. The plan is to harvest the potential of Zurich as a hub for research and thereby create added value.
Beatrice Beck Schimmer believes it’s important to get an understanding of the various stakes that are at play. “What’s good for the UniversityHospital might not be good for the Balgrist University Hospital.” Custom concepts for research and teaching are needed. “And we have to decide together where we’re heading,” she says. Important research and teaching topics should be brought in line with future needs, for example in the area of innovation or high-risk research.
But how come the distinguished professor of anesthesiology wants to change her area of responsibility? She’s never shied away from a challenge, she says with a laugh: “I’m a risk taker!” Also, the new position offers her the unique opportunity to set new standards in the area of university medicine.
Her affinity to risk taking is obvious to anyone familiar with her career. Early in her career in anesthesiology and pregnant with her first child, she decided to travel to the USA with her husband and work on a research project in Michigan. Performing research in the laboratory filled her with enthusiasm, and so she stuck with it.
Today she and her team are investigating ways in which nanotechnology can be exploited for medical application. Research isn’t her only line of work, however – she regularly steps into the operating room as an anesthesiologist. While her new position means that she’ll give up her work in the clinics, she plans on continuing to pursue her research activities. In fact, she’s negotiated that 20 percent of her workload will remain available for research.
Inspiration from US universities
Her enthusiasm for research was born in the US. There are many things about the American university system that she considers modern, clearly structured and worthy of imitation. “Why not take inspiration from across the pond?,” she says. She mentions the US concept of clinical professors as an interesting example. These refer to professors who are exclusively concerned with training and continuing education in clinical teaching, and only marginally involved in research projects. “Teaching is very important and should also be given a more prominent role in Switzerland,” says Beck Schimmer. In the US, teaching is very highly valued.
Beck Schimmer thinks it’s vitally important to move forward when it comes to teaching: Studies in medicine are facing whole new challenges today. Just think about the chances offered by precision medicine or the new possibilities and ethical questions arising from digitalization. She also thinks it’s important that students be introduced to research topics at an early stage, especially at the Master’s level. At the Bachelor’s level, however, she believes that the basic subjects in natural sciences continue to play a key role. “They’re part and parcel of what a medical professional will be doing throughout their careers.”
A clear focus is beneficial
Academic career development is a further topic that is close to her heart. For example, she launched the Filling the Gap program, which supports talented clinicians in their research activities. “It’s very important that researchers also have time to reflect, develop new ideas and build networks. This shouldn’t have to happen in the evening after a day’s work in the clinic,” says Beck Schimmer, who is also a member of the SNSF Research Council, where she chairs the expert committee overseeing the area of academic careers.
She also believes that a clear research focus is essential, particularly for young researchers, so that they can work independently early in their careers. She’s critical about the pressure to publish papers that researchers are faced with today. “We have to counter the pressure to publish and insist more on quality, especially when it comes to evaluation procedures,” she says with conviction. “Less is often more.” She’s also of the opinion that achievements that come in form of patents, licenses and spin-offs should be better recognized. At the end of the day, the aim is for excellence.
And what’s her view of UZH’s relationship with ETH Zurich? The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has now also committed to offering medical studies and is investing a great deal in medical research. “A little competition is a good thing,” says Beck Schimmer with a laugh. In the area of teaching, the two universities have started cooperating, and there’s already successful collaboration when it comes to research. “There’s an excellent network.” The University Medicine Zurich initiative and the new Center for Precision Medicine Research are good examples here. “It’s important that we join forces, in particular in view of our competitors abroad.”
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