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David Cohen steps down as HST Director

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dr. David Cohen, co-Director of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program and the Robert H. Ebert Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is stepping down after a nine-year tenure and will become Chief of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in the Department of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital.

No stranger to the program, David began his association with HST more than 37 years ago when he entered the program as a student, graduating in 1987 with an MD in Medicine and a PhD in Physiology and Biophysics.

Hailing from the New York area, David comes from a family of physicians. Despite his front row seat to observe the world of clinical medicine, his interest was more firmly grounded in physical sciences research than on being a practicing physician. However, he saw opportunity to combine the two and do research based on the patients he would be caring for as a physician. David applied to the MD-PhD program at Johns Hopkins and the HST MD program through Harvard Medical School (HMS). He was accepted and committed to Johns Hopkins, which came with full funding, but then received a letter of invitation to join HST. At the time, MD students could not apply for the MD-PhD program at Harvard until their second year, so David was unsure about the HST opportunity.

With the two offers on the table, David contacted Dr. Irving London, the beloved founder of HST who served as the HST Director from 1971 to 1985. Dr. London had previously been David’s father’s chairman when he was a resident in medicine at Jacobi Hospital at the newly established Albert Einstein College of Medicine. David first got to know Dr. London during high school when he and his father visited Boston. It seemed only natural to seek the advice of the well-respected scientist. David says, “He was a commanding presence. I valued his advice and really looked up to him as an important role model figure in my career.”

David told Dr. London that he felt privileged to have the opportunity to consider offers from two prestigious programs, but was not sure which path to take, asking, “So, Dr. London, why should I do the HST program?” To which Dr. London responded, “Listen, David, if you want to play in the major leagues, you should really play on the Yankees.”

David recounts that he pondered the deeper meaning of this advice for all of about an hour before accepting the HST offer. It became clear to him that the HST program provided an opportunity like no other—the chance to be a “dual citizen” of two world-renowned institutions with access to brilliant faculty, a collaborative environment, other likeminded and talented students, as well as an innovative hands-on teaching approach.

When David graduated from the HST program, he went on to do his residency and fellowship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He remained in Boston for another ten years, also serving as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at HMS.  Pondering his next move at a time when research support was not secure within the newly formed Partners system, David again reached out to Dr. London for advice. Dr. London offered to share David’s CV with Dr. Irwin Arias, Chairman of Physiology at Tufts, whom Dr. London had hired along with David’s father to be residents when he was at Einstein. Dr. Arias had gone on to found the world-renowned Liver Research Center at Einstein. That conversation led to a faculty position for David in the Departments of Medicine and Biochemistry at Einstein, where he remained for a good part of the next decade. Once again, Dr. London’s timely and thoughtful counsel helped David advance his career along a path that David recounts he may not have pursued without Dr. London’s suggestion.

During his tenure at Einstein, David discovered that he deeply enjoyed working with his medical and graduate students.  So as he contemplated his next career move, his key objective was an appointment where he could continue to interact with students. When an offer came to move to Boston and join the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, David contacted Joe Bonventre, HST co-Director at HMS at the time, and asked if there were opportunities to be involved with HST. 

David returned to Boston in 2004 as an Associate Professor of Medicine at HMS in the Gastroenterology Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and also as a faculty member of the HST program. He joined the HST MD Admissions Committee and became Chair of that committee a year later. It was a heavy workload but very rewarding.

When Dr. Bonventre announced he was stepping down as HST co-Director, colleagues encouraged David to put his name in for consideration. It had not occurred to him to pursue the directorship, but when  David took the opportunity to reflect on the founding mission of the program and his own experience within HST, he felt ready to commit to a much more expanded role. He was offered the position and would serve as director for the next nine years.

David took the helm as the Harvard co-Director of HST in 2007, initially serving alongside MIT co-Director Martha Gray, who stepped down in 2008 after 12 years in that role.  The change in the MIT leadership of HST, coupled with the global economic downturn at that time, created uncertainty about the future of HST. Thus, early in his tenure as director, David was faced with the enormous task of gathering stakeholders from Harvard, MIT, and HST to reevaluate the future of the program. 

David was up to the challenge, according to Dr. Richard Mitchell, Associate Director of HST and Professor of Pathology  at HMS: “For these past nine years, David has been exactly the right man for the right job. His steady hand and his ability to find common ground helped HST weather the economic vicissitudes of 2008/2009 and also got us through the tumult of curriculum reform.”

David’s approach was simple but effective. He asked the questions that members of any good organization should always ask themselves: What is our purpose? Who are we serving? How do we justify the progress we’re making?

At a farewell gathering, one of David’s former students, Dr. Laura Jacox, remarked, “Dr. Cohen has been one of the most inspirational and influential mentors in my life. He conducts himself with the humility and kindness of a true professional [and] treats those around him with a level of respect and humanity. Dr. Cohen can also massage academic and political situations to achieve the desired outcome without ruffling feathers. His ability to understand all sides of a situation and calmly and ingeniously address problems is one of the skills I most admire about him and aspire to develop.”

Dr. Matthew Frosch, Associate Director of HST and Professor of Pathology at HMS, had this to say: “It’s to David’s credit that he led us  . . . to a very successful current state.  He did it with the right mix of optimism (his sense that things can and will be accomplished) and just the right amount of both realistic thinking and a small bit of cynicism about how things might go awry. And that led us to what is now a strong and stable situation.”

Throughout his directorship, David regularly kept Dr. London abreast of his progress. David says, “As much as things have or haven’t changed over the years at HST, the program exists in a different environment, but the mission of the program is still the same as it was when it started. And having Dr. London around has been really important in making sure we understand what the mission statement is—training the brightest young, aspiring academic physicians and really having them positioned at the interface of science and medicine. And that’s what the program’s still about. And when you talk to Dr. London that really is, for him, the essence of HST.”

It could be said that David also provided the same degree of continuity during his tenure, as evidenced by the committed HST community he has sustained. As director, David had to interface with numerous staff, faculty, and administrators from both institutions. Dr. David Golan, Dean for Basic Science and Graduate Education, said: “David has done all these things seamlessly. What he’s done, to my mind, is to keep a dedicated and passionate group of incredible students, alumni, and faculty fully engaged and devoted to the HST mission.”

While David looks forward to his next career move, he plans to stay close to the HST community as an active alum. He also has great hopes for the next Harvard co-director of HST and the ongoing work needed for continued growth. He says “It’s important to have new points of view, new people, and I’m confident the next director will be just as passionate about HST. And HST will benefit from a fresh look and new ideas and new directions. Now is an important time for the program. It’s on very solid ground. But the next director has an important opportunity to take a program that’s already great and make it unparalleled in new ways. And these new ways include thinking about how can we really leverage cutting edge teaching techniques that involve technology across the two institutions and involve new research techniques in approaches and thinking into a program? Our style of teaching has been relatively constant over time—I think it’s a very good style—there’s nothing broken about it—the way we lecture and interact with students and the way they learn. But I think that can be taken to a new level.

David also remains dedicated to the value of a connected community and leaves these parting words for current and future HST students alike:

“HST is a treasure and exists because of the community of people that make it HST. It’s been my privilege to occupy the position for nine years. For the students, it’s very important what’s presented to them in the classroom, and the faculty and administration of HST think and work very hard to make that as optimal an experience as possible. But it’s really important for them to view this as an opportunity well beyond the classroom. To really have the full experience, I hope the students will explore the vast resources available to them across these great institutions. If they do that, everything’s here for them. It does take knocking on doors and getting outside of their comfort zone, but they’ll be well rewarded.”

David’s friend and mentor, Dr. London, said at the farewell gathering: “I was delighted to hear that David would be the director of HST. And I can tell you that in the years that followed, he has been a superb director. Students love him. Faculty members love him . . . we wish him a very long and happy career and hope that he will see us very often in the future.” A sentiment expressed and agreed upon by many.

Karen Shaner | Institute for Medical Engineering and Science