George J. Netto – A Leading Light
Sitting Down With… George J. Netto, Endowed Chair, Department of Pathology, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama, USA
As Chair, you oversee the three main functions of your department: teaching, research, and service. How do you manage all that and still remain active in your own work?
Managing these responsibilities is not unique to the role of Chair – but, as an academic pathologist, you learn to multitask and to organize your time and efforts in these three areas. As Chair, you have a heightened responsibility and become more of a facilitator, building a team to help fulfill the missions for your department. When you surround yourself with talent, it positions you and your organization for success.
As Chair, you are forced to downsize your participation in clinical service and research to allow more time for your many additional administrative responsibilities. Having said that, it is important for me to maintain a certain degree of activity in research and service for my own sense of fulfillment. It also helps me understand how to best serve my faculty and stay in touch with the challenges they face within the institution on a day-to-day basis.
Do you have a five- or 10-year plan for your department?
I do. Such planning is very important for the success of any large department like ours. We are four years into our initial five-year plan, which included major objectives, including i) recruiting a team of talented clinical and research faculty; ii) building an infrastructure that is supportive of faculty growth – in terms of not only physical space and equipment, but also protected time for scholarly and academic growth; iii) transitioning into a subspecialized model of anatomic pathology service, which is crucial to delivering the highest quality of care and enhancing translational research output; and iv) revamping the training program in this competitive environment of pathology residency recruitment and building subspecialty fellowships to train the next generation of pathologists.
Does molecular biology rank highly on your list for near-future development?
Yes – and the five-year plan includes building a genomic diagnostic center that will support our comprehensive cancer center and the precision medicine initiative at UAB. Not only have we been able to attract faculty with the molecular expertise we need, but we have also invested heavily in capital equipment and our bioinformatics infrastructure. All of these efforts have brought great dividends that will soon materialize in our molecular offerings, including a wide array of next-generation gene panels for a variety of solid and hematologic malignancies, fusion gene panels, and pharmacogenomics.
Do you have enough funds to accomplish your goals?
At UAB, we are known for our successful track record in basic science and National Institutes of Health funding. Our federal funding resources are further enhanced by grants from the Veterans’ Administration and the Department of Defense, which our investigators have been successful in securing. An important part of our mission is to maintain this success by providing mentoring and a supportive research infrastructure to current researchers, as well as by exploring other areas of investigation to allow for future growth. We are building on our synergy with other departments in the institution to attract funded investigators in neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.
Have you encountered any challenges in recruiting new scientists?
Quite the contrary; we have been fortunate to attract 30 talented anatomic and clinical pathologists, physician-scientists, and clinical translational faculty to our institution since I became Chair. Our recruiting success is due in part to robust support from the School of Medicine in providing internal funds and mentoring infrastructure. In addition, the generous donations of our former faculty and community have allowed us to set up endowments for recruitment and retention. The ongoing revitalization of Birmingham and the region, in combination with our institution’s outstanding reputation, continues to attract new talent to the area.
In January 2020, you became Editor-in-Chief of Modern Pathology. What are your plans for the journal?
I am thrilled to have been chosen as Editor-in-Chief for the premier journal in our field. It is a big responsibility to follow the great success John Eble achieved in his impressive 20-year tenure. Together with a talented team of 13 subspecialty-based editors and a revamped editorial board, we are working hard to further expand the scope of the journal. My plan is to continue to provide our readers with the latest discoveries in genomics and biomarkers for immune therapy and, at the same time, to expand into other areas. Right now, I am particularly interested in the impact of machine learning and artificial intelligence on digital pathology, applied informatics, genomics, and precision diagnostics.
Modern Pathology is already highly ranked among pathology journals. How do you plan to build on that success?
We are excited about the challenge of maintaining – and hopefully even raising – the high impact factor the journal has achieved. We are introducing processes to improve review turnaround times. We are reaching out to authors in the areas where we would like to expand our scope, such as immunogenomics and computational pathology. We have plans to expand the journal’s web and social media presence – perhaps by offering podcasts and other educational media tools. And, of course, we will continue to offer thematic issues, including the supplement based on the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology’s long course. I am excited and optimistic about the future of our journal – and of our field in general.
While obtaining degrees in biology from the University of Alberta and biochemistry from Penn State College of Medicine, I worked as a freelance science and medical writer. I was able to hone my skills in research, presentation and scientific writing by assembling grants and journal articles, speaking at international conferences, and consulting on topics ranging from medical education to comic book science. As much as I’ve enjoyed designing new bacteria and plausible superheroes, though, I’m more pleased than ever to be at Texere, using my writing and editing skills to create great content for a professional audience.