David W. Niesel, Ph.D., has been at UTMB since 1983 and was appointed dean of UTMB’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in March 2014. As the outgoing and passionate chairman of the Department of Microbiology & Immunology for 10 years, he saw the department rise to a top 5 ranking in NIH funding among microbiology and immunology departments nationally. He was named UTMB's Chief Research Officer last month and holds the J.P. Saunders Professorship in Graduate Biomedical Sciences.
Niesel, along with Professor Emeritus Norbert Herzog, is co-creator of Medical Discovery News, a radio show that is broadcast on hundreds of stations in 16 states and in Puerto Rico and three countries. This program and a weekly newspaper column bring advances in biomedical research to the public – such as whether airport full-body scanners pose radiation risks, or how a natural compound found in chocolate can reverse age-related memory decline.
He took a moment to talk about his popular show, as well as life inside and outside of UTMB.
What does “The Road Ahead” look like for you?
We are in the midst of what has been termed the third revolution in modern biology. The first revolution started with the discovery of the structure of DNA in the early 1950s by Watson and Crick, which was the beginning of molecular biology. The second revolution centered on the sequencing of the human genome and launched the genomic era. Many feel we have now entered “Convergence,” or the third revolution. Convergence is the coming together of interdisciplinary research areas such as systems biology, bioinformatics, translational sciences, computational biology, engineering and regenerative medicine, among others. This approach will be important in driving the advancement of medicine toward personalized and affordable health care through advances in basic, translational and clinical research, improvements in health technologies and in medical advances.
It is imperative that we support UTMB investigators and trainees to compete and excel in this new environment. We will gather input from across the research enterprise to form a strategic plan, using the information and approach successfully applied in the recent Academic Enterprise 2020 planning effort. Broad consensus gathered from this process will help identify where the research community sees value in the future and align our resources and growth to achieve these goals.
UTMB is fortunate to have outstanding researchers, trainees and staff who are focused on advancing medicine through our diverse and successful research programs present in all four schools. We are already successfully responding to these changes and I firmly believe that UTMB will continue to be a leading biomedical research academic health center for years to come. I am committed to supporting the faculty research program and providing the highest quality education for our students and postdoctoral fellows.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
My job focuses on two main areas that, thankfully, are closely related. As Chief Research Officer, I am tasked with advancing the research program of investigators at UTMB. Biomedical research is focused on the future of medicine. No matter how fundamental the research, we are all working to improve human health. As dean of the GSBS, I work with students and postdoctoral fellows who are pursuing biomedical research training. The pursuit of modern research requires a supportive environment, state-of-the-art facilities and outstanding expertise to thrive. Maintaining these attributes in today’s funding environment is the challenge that we face every day.
Observing the incredible creativity of the faculty members and trainees who are rewarded with highly regarded publications or with public recognition is the most rewarding aspect of the job. We have talented scientists at UTMB who are advancing their fields by explaining biomedical or social processes, mechanisms of disease or how to intervene when things go wrong with new therapeutics or vaccines.
Do you still manage to find time for yourself?
Yes, but this is a challenge. I love what I do at UTMB and always want to do things in the best way possible. Outside of work, I enjoy traveling, cooking and spending time with my family. This past year, I joined the board of directors of the University Federal Credit Union, which has been an enriching experience that has changed how I interact with the Galveston and wider Texas communities. As a director, I interact with various business leaders who are board members; they bring a new way of thinking and problem-solving to the table, which I find stimulating, and brings value to my UTMB roles.
You have a weekly radio show, podcast and newspaper column. How do you find new material each week?
I get asked this question a lot. We recently broadcast our 400th episode, and we work hard to keep the material fresh. The truth is that identifying discoveries to write about is not a problem. There are so many exciting developments in biomedical science and medicine that the problem actually becomes choosing one. The challenge is to keep the subject broad enough to keep our audience’s interest each week. A personal benefit to doing these weekly episodes is that it forces me to read a wide array of biomedical and medical articles and reports, which allows me to appreciate different fields and recognize significant advances in diverse areas. Overall, this knowledge base helps me communicate with a range of scientists at UTMB and beyond.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I am proudest of the part I played in the training of UTMB students who have gone on to do great things in so many different career venues. As Graduate Dean, I have been hosting “reverse homecomings” in different cities that I have traveled to for meetings. These events bring together alumni for dinner, where they tell stories of their careers since leaving UTMB. Their stories are incredible and they all mention their appreciation for the education they received at UTMB. It is clear that we have trained some outstanding people who are making a difference across the US and the world.
What three words would people most likely use to describe you?
Friendly, thoughtful, creative and maybe sometimes a little intense
What is your favorite book? Movie?
Here is a true confession: I am addicted to audiobooks and listen to them every day while commuting. I admit I am a George R.R. Martin and “Game of Thrones” fan and can’t understand why the sixth book is not out yet!
I have many favorite movies — Janet and I always try to see the major, award-nominated films each year. It is a goal to attend the Sundance Film Festival in the future.
What have you always wanted to do but have not done yet?
I would love to visit every national park in the US and Canada. We have made a good start but have a ways to go!