June 19, 2019

Reflections on our first five years as the Cumming School of Medicine

How Geoffrey Cumming’s transformative gift is changing medical research in southern Alberta

I’ll never forget the question Geoff Cumming asked the first time we met. I didn’t know it at the time but he was about to change the course of our medical school forever.

“Where could this school be in 20 years?” he asked me pointedly. Geoff always thinks big. He’s incredibly visionary.

Indeed, he was on a mission to take medical research and education in southern Alberta to ambitious new heights. Over the next two hours we sat in our conference room and thoughtfully discussed many possibilities. We eventually focused on an investment in the people, platforms and partnerships that could propel the medical school into a major player on a global scale — a research leader in brain and mental health and chronic diseases.

  • Pictured above are George Cumming, left, with Jon Meddings, dean of the Cumming School of Medicine.

Working to advance Geoff Cumming’s vision 

On June 17, 2014, our school was renamed the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) to honour his $100 million donation, the largest single philanthropic gift in UCalgary’s history. The gift was later matched by the provincial government. 

It’s been a little more than five years since Geoff and I first spoke. And I am very pleased to report we are on track to see his vision through.

Some highlights include:

  • Attracting global leaders in medical research like senior associate dean (health research) Dr. Marcello Tonelli, MD, who joined the vice-president (research) office and the CSM in 2014. He has been instrumental in enhancing clinical, health services and population health research within the CSM, which has seen funding increase from $15 million in 2015 to $68 million in 2018.
  • Opening the International Microbiome Centre (IMC) in 2017 and recruiting leading microbiome researcher Dr. Kathy McCoy, PhD, from Switzerland. She leads our groundbreaking microbiome research efforts into the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. Since opening, the IMC has enabled a pan-Canadian research core of microbiologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, clinician scientists, ethicists, sex/gender champions and computational biologists from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia to support microbiome research in Canada.
  • Opening the Centre for Health Informatics in January 2019. The CSM’s newest research and innovation hub led by director Dr. Hude Quan, PhD, is advancing health data access and management, as well as research and training in data science.
  • Improving our understanding of brain function in health and disease through advances at CSM’s Neurotechnologies Platforms. The facility has several research projects underway related to brain function, to support positive outcomes for patients with brain and mental health disorders. This includes an innovative focused ultrasound technique showing promise in treating essential tremor, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurological and psychiatric diseases. The focused ultrasound program, led by Dr. Bruce Pike, PhD, was awarded $8 million in new funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation in 2017.
  • Leveraging the gift to enable further research funding from other partners. For example, funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has grown from $25 million in 2014 to more than $45 million last year.
  • Starting a new program to hire professors and scientists, offering 75 per cent protected time for research specifically targeting precision medicine and precision public health. 
Geoffrey Cumming, right, shares a moment with his mother, Madeleine, during a 2014 event celebrating the largest philanthropic gift in the university’s history.

Geoffrey Cumming, right, shares a moment with his mother, Madeleine, at his donation celebration.

Drivers of our success 

In looking back on the day we officially became known as the Cumming School of Medicine, I often reflect on the enthusiasm of Geoff’s mother, Madeleine. She was beaming with boundless energy and pride.

It’s a lasting reminder of how family served as the inspiration for Geoff’s gift. Geoff is a University of Calgary economics grad and his father had been a physician in Ontario.

Five years later, our school family — students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and our many partners — is as strong as ever, focused on creating the future of health. At the CSM, our people remain the main drivers of our success. Finding, developing, engaging and fostering excellent people will always be at the heart of what we do. 

Marcello ‘Cello’ Tonelli is the associate vice-president (health research), University of Calgary, and senior associate dean (clinical research), Cumming School of Medicine. He is also a professor in the Department of Medicine, and a member of the university’s Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta and O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Kathy McCoy is a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.

Hude Quan is a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Classification, Terminology and Standards at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. He is also lead for Alberta’s Strategies for Patient Oriented Research SUPPORT Unit Methods Support and Development Platform.

Bruce Pike is a professor in the departments of radiology and clinical neurosciences. He is the Campus Alberta Innovation Program chair in Healthy Brain Aging and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. 

Geoff Cumming’s gift is part of Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High, UCalgary’s $1.3 billion fundraising campaign that formally launched in April 2016 in conjunction with the university’s 50th anniversary. Learn more or make a gift.