2019 has been quite a year for ITM and quite a year for me. It is one that will be marked in my life story as the year I started a journey to a new country and new position, as Director of ITM in Antwerp and filling the shoes of my predecessor, Bruno Gryseels.
The timing of my start in mid-August was fortuitous as the summer break meant a relatively quiet landing. Almost too quiet as there were few people to help me get up to speed, but I realise now that this gave me the chance to discover ITM in an unbiased manner and on my terms in these early days.
My first task was to meet and get to know the staff of ITM and students – the people that actually make ITM, well, ITM. This gave me the chance to exchange ideas and connect with my colleagues and partners. I learnt a great deal in those days. While getting to know the Institute however, I was very aware of the looming deadline to submit new 5-year institutional plans to determine the direction of the Institute – these were due six weeks after I started. This meant that I had to quickly apply what I was learning in order to finalise the plans started by my predecessor. I was supported by the expertise of seasoned ITM colleagues, and together we reviewed and finalised the 2020-2024 strategic institutional and departmental policy plans.
The policy plans have been approved and act as the basis for our new covenant of support from the Flemish Government. As we all know, this good news is the result of work that goes far beyond written policy plans. It is the result of decades of work by ITM as it has evolved into a modern institute specialising in the areas of scientific research, professional and academic education and service provision – both in Belgium and in our partner countries. And 2019, despite the changes at the helm, has continued to be a year of evolution and achievement.
To mention a few of these achievements we have seen: ITM-partnered research in the middle of the hot zone in DRC, we’ve received initial accreditation for a new Master in Tropical Medicine and launched a health application for travellers. Not forgetting, of course, our thought-provoking ITM Colloquium ‘Connecting the Dots’ opened by the Queen of the Belgians in October. Thank you to everyone at the Institute and our partners for making these achievements a reality.
Along with these, we have also our challenges. Our physical infrastructure will need to evolve to best support the Institute and in 2019 we saw the retirement of several professors in addition to Bruno. We are entering a period where we will lose a generation of other professors and senior staff and with them their expertise over the next few years.
But with challenges come opportunities. I aim for us to pivot as an Institute towards what we want to achieve in the future. To pivot well, we have to maintain our strong anchor points: that of our depth of expertise in tropical medicine, our reputation as a trusted partner across the world and the fact that we have many exceptional people who are experienced at doing what I call ‘hard science in hard places’.
With these as our anchor, I aim to bring increased dynamism and flexibility into the Institute by welcoming new talent with the right expertise to take on the health challenges we all face in our globally interconnected world. These challenges include the effects of climate change, migration, risks to global health security linked to emerging and re-emerging diseases and outbreaks, vaccines, rising antimicrobial resistance, questions of disease elimination and the development and maintenance of sustainable health systems.
One other area I will also be looking at is how we can leverage our reputation and scientific expertise more effectively across countries and the globe, through strengthening and expanding partnerships to better contribute to research on public health problems. We aim to make our education flexible and modular with the goal of an “open campus”, and to better connect our extensive and vibrant alumni network both to provide career opportunities, but also to stimulate collaborations.
I look forward to tackling these ideas together in 2020 with all of the ITM staff and our partners, working on one mission to use science to help people live healthier lives or as our policy plans state: “Global Science for a Healthier World”.
Lastly I want to thank Cathy Berx, the Board of Governors, the General Council and Bruno for all the support during the last few months, and of course all at ITM who have been very patient and understanding as they get used to a new director.
I look forward to an exciting 2020!