In Service of Science: Dr. Stenzel-Poore

Dr. Stenzel-PooreMary Stenzel-Poore, PhD '87, and OHSU's discovery engine

In a presentation she often gives around campus, Mary Stenzel-Poore, PhD, likes to share this general rule-of-thumb: 30,000 discoveries are required for one discovery to become a therapeutic.

That's a lot of basic science. A lot of questions asked and a lot of experiments undertaken in order to impact people's lives. It is rich, difficult, sometimes unsung work, but for Dr. Stenzel-Poore and scientists and physicians everywhere, basic science broadens human knowledge and powers the process of improving human health. It's the discovery engine.

Since becoming the School of Medicine's Senior Associate Dean for Research earlier this year, Dr. Stenzel-Poore, Associate Vice President for Research, is shepherding Oregon's primary biomedical discovery engine serving the state's 3.8 million citizens and beyond. She works with faculty and researchers in 26 basic science and clinical departments—which together were awarded $230 million in research funding last year. Over the last decade in particular, OHSU research programs (roughly two-thirds of which fall within the School of Medicine) have expanded tremendously, achieving eminence in many areas.

Why are they doing so well? "The culture here is enormously collaborative," said Dr. Stenzel-Poore. "People come here for that."

Dr. Stenzel-Poore, a well-respected neuroimmunologist, focuses on immunotherapy research that seeks to protect the brain against injury in stroke. Over the last few years, her research team has found that treating mice with certain Toll-like receptor (TLR) ligands such as lipopolysaccharide prior to stroke reprograms the brain's response to ischemia away from inflammation and injury and towards cell survival and neuroprotection. Her group is well into pre-clinical trials. She has also launched a biotech startup called Neuroprotect, Inc., to help bring those discoveries into application.

Over her 35-year career, she's worked on plenty of tough questions, and like every scientist, this professor of molecular microbiology and immunology seeks them out. Lately, though, as a key member of OHSU's research leadership team, Dr. Stenzel-Poore has been chewing on this question: In an era of flat or even diminishing federal financial support for research, what must OHSU do in order to be one of the most successful academic health centers in research in the nation?

It was this question that Dean Mark Richardson and OHSU's Vice President for Research Dan Dorsa began asking several years ago, a question whose answer culminated in the School of Medicine's Research Roadmap.

In approaching the question, Dr. Stenzel-Poore treated it like any tough query in immunotherapy. "There's a real sense among researchers that it's all about discovery," she said. "By its nature, discovery is not a planned process. So they told us that writing a plan for discovery doesn't work."

Dr. Stenzel-Poore understood but disagreed. "Planning doesn't have to block you from making discoveries. The two can coexist." She and Associate Dean for Clinical & Translational Research Eric Orwoll, M.D. R '79, Professor of Medicine, Associate Vice President for Research, set out to convince 70 or so prominent investigators that a strategy for the future would lift every investigator up.

Dr. Stenzel-Poore applied a proven algorithm: bring people together in the same room, ideally over lunch—or wine—and get them talking, give them leadership responsibility and credit, remove the barriers and get out of the way. It took two years but Drs. Stenzel-Poore and Orwoll changed the entrenched skepticism. By the end, Dr. Stenzel-Poore had to turn away faculty seeking to serve on Roadmap committees. Her collaborative leadership style is very much founded on the hours and hours of experience she's gained in her own science program.

Dr. Stenzel-Poore began her career at OHSU as a research assistant in 1977, working her way from graduate student, postdoc and instructor to professor and, in 2010, chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology. "The academic environment appealed to me because it wasn't prescribed what you had to do," she said. "It was about making a discovery, which led to another discovery, which led to another discovery."

Along the way, science changed. "When I first started, science was pretty individualized. It was your project, and you worked on it." Slowly, her field, along with so many others, grew beyond her own expertise, and in order to pursue each new piece, she had to bring in neurologists, neurosurgeons, primatologists, biostatisticians and other immunologists all working together on the problem of stroke. Today, science problems are so complex, she said, with so many facets to them, they require multidisciplinary teams to find the 360-degree answer.

So you might be wondering why a hard-core scientist such as Dr. Stenzel-Poore would seek out administrative work, the kind of planning, policies and structure so anathema to the free spirit of scientific inquiry? "Doing my science is great and for an important cause, but I wanted to build the community around me. I wanted to give back." When a position opened up in 2008, the school's associate dean for basic science, she jumped at the opportunity. Today she keeps one foot in the lab through a hand-picked research team who runs her stroke program.

This scientist is chewing on yet another question—perhaps the most pressing one of our era and one coming from the highest levels of the U.S. government: How do scientists rapidly and effectively move their biomedical discoveries into the development of therapies that treat disease and save lives? "Now, more than ever, we are responsible to the nation for creating this translational continuum," she said.

Dr. Stenzel-Poore knows that full-spectrum research must happen on the hill, and riding on it is OHSU’s ability to continue thriving in research. It should come as no surprise that she has a plan: bring smart people together, help them find resources, remove the barriers and get out of the way. That’s how you answer the question.


Pictured: Dr. Stenzel-Poore