Board of Trustees

Barron wants Penn State to be leader in medical research

Penn State President Eric Barron speaks at a board of trustees meeting in February. On Friday, the Penn State Board of Trustees approved a contract extension for Barron.
Penn State President Eric Barron speaks at a board of trustees meeting in February. On Friday, the Penn State Board of Trustees approved a contract extension for Barron. Centre Daily Times, file

Eric Barron has already advanced the idea of Penn State as a national, if not global, leader in various fields.

Let that school in Columbus be “The Ohio State University” because Barron wants Penn State to be “the energy university.” Penn State just created the Center for Security Research and Education. The Applied Research Lab has been building on needs for the Navy and others for more than 70 years.

Now he wants to see medicine have its day.

“Health lives in every single college we have on this campus,” he said.

Penn State has its own medical school in Hershey. It has a regional program at University Park. It has a hospital in Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

And yet, Penn State — Pennsylvania’s largest university — is not the first name you think of when “medicine” comes up in the state.

Penn Presbyterian, part of the University of Pennsylvania, is the top hospital in the state, according to U.S. News and World Report, with Pitt’s UPMC Shadyside in second place and Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia rounding out third. Hershey Medical Center comes in fourth.

But where Hershey stands out, it really stands out. The hospital is nationally ranked in two adult specialties (gastroenterology and orthopedics) and four children’s specialties. Penn State students are closely tied to one of those — pediatric cancer — because of the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, which raises millions of dollars annually to support kids in treatment and their families. Pediatric cardiology, pediatric orthopedics and neonatology are other areas with gold stars.

But where Barron is putting his faith is collaboration, the same way he has with energy, security, ARL and more.

Penn State’s medical program is not ranked by U.S. News, while Penn’s Perelman is No. 8, UPMC is No. 13, Thomas Jefferson is No. 51 and Temple is No. 84. The university has lots of related programs that are, however.

In addition to being tied for No. 14 among public universities, Penn State is ranked 20th in engineering undergraduate programs, with top 10 rankings in four different engineering disciplines, including biological engineering, manufacturing and materials. Smeal College of Business is another recognized Penn State branch, with three ranked undergraduate programs, including insurance.

Look at graduate programs, and there are even more noted programs that can tie to medical fields and research, including rankings in law, education, nursing, biological science, chemistry, psychology, earth sciences, computer science, rehabilitative counseling, speech language pathology and health care management.

“We have a huge capacity, and we have a long way to go,” he said. “We can go a long way with this. We have so many great examples of where we cross disciplines.”

He noted Huck Institutes of Life Sciences as the model for the collaboration he wants to build. That pours $15 million a year into research and people studying various areas like infectious disease and neural engineering. It brings together seven colleges, 31 departments, 476 educators and 316 graduate students with groundbreaking equipment in 10 different facilities.

Barron told his trustees Friday that he sees a growth in medical fields if the university crosses disciplines and puts an emphasis on research in the area. Of top 25 universities, Penn State is the fourth lowest in medical research investments.

“That’s not something to be proud of,” Barron said.

Of the top 25 schools getting National Institutes of Health awards, the university received less money for medical research than any school but Texas A&M. Penn State had just under $100 million, with most of it not going to the medical school.

The point of the presentation was to focus attention on the idea as a part of the university’s fundraising campaign. The latest campaign — “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence”— is not focused on items, but around themes. Barron pointed to the medical goals as part of the “Impact the World” theme.

Barron sees another monetary potential when it comes to research. Penn State is a major recipient of grant funding and research partnerships from all over. The NIH grants are a part of that, but the university also has money coming in from the Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, the state of Pennsylvania, business and industry and private investment. On Wednesday, Penn State announced the receipts had just broken a record, with $865 million in the 2016-17 school year.

Penn State faculty trustee David Han is a professor of surgery and radiology at Hershey. He is also the vice chair of education for the surgical department. He sees the ways medicine is advancing, and says that is driving a need for advancement in other areas.

“The challenge is to catch up on the regulatory side,” he said.

While things like tele-visits are flourishing and more records are kept and shared electronically, there is a need to work with fields that might not have been considered, like information technology and communications.

“These partnerships are critical,” Han said.

The emphasis also dovetails with the university’s recent attention on entrepreneurship. Over the last year, the medical school and medical center launched the Center for Medical Innovation. That has led to two startups, three license agreements, 10 patents and 47 new medical technologies.

“It’s never going to stop,” Barron said of advancement in medicine. “I can’t imagine that in all of human history we are ever going to see us not trying to learn more about the area of health care.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce