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“It’s always about the whole person!”

Professor Joachim Thiery was appointed full-time Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University in April. In his interview with unizeit, he comments on the future development of university teaching and the future key topics of research.

Man sitting in an office

Joachim Thiery, laboratory physician and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the CAU.

unizeit: Professor Thiery, you are Dean and therefore the head of the Faculty of Medicine. This means that since April, you have primarily been a manager and no longer scientist, lecturer and active medical practitioner. How do you like it?

Joachim Thiery:It’s exciting! I’m happy to be able to apply the experience I’ve gained at various university hospitals in Germany and abroad to managing the excellent Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University and the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein.At the same time, my love of research and teaching and the desire to improve the life of patients have never left me and will never leave me. University medicine is a highly complex organisational entity with many interfaces. Constant new adjustments are needed in order to successfully develop the processes for research, teaching and patient care.

Which efforts are particularly important to you?

I’m particularly preoccupied with two areas. One is the promotion of young medical talent, the other is the translation of new knowledge into medical applications. And the two areas are also related. We need perspectives for young people in university medicine – and we need them to be interprofessional, so not only for young doctors and scientists, but also for nursing staff and functional medical services. I’m delighted that Kiel and Lübeck, with the support of the Landesärztekammer, our regional medical association, have already succeeded in launching a training programme for clinical scientists. With this programme, we have established incentives for researching clinicians that are urgently needed for the future of university medicine and the qualification of young leadership talents. But of course, the Faculty of Medicine is also committed to promoting the availability of medical care in the region and to emphasise the key role of general practitioners. Normally, the university’s influence ends after the students have graduated with their state examination. I want to make these transitions more fluid in order to support lifelong learning.

How can you proactively shape the development of research and teaching?

Research evolves from questions and goals that scientists define, pursue systematically and may also abandon again. Successful research needs a vision and the ability to focus on what’s important as well as a continuous exchange of knowledge with other scientists all over the world. I’m committed to promoting the spirit of discovery in medicine for both clinical and basic research. But also the readiness for application, for translating the findings of basic research.

With its long-term target agreements, the state has provided the faculty with a great perspective, and I’m grateful for that. Kiel has already made unique achievements, despite limited means – I’m thinking in particular of the Cluster of Excellence. But of course, there is still additional potential. In addition to research groups, my aim is to get one or preferably two Collaborative Research Centres (CRCs) up and running.

What do you want to focus on?

Digital medicine, and therefore also systems medicine, is the guiding theme of the Faculty of Medicine. This involves, for example, the use of bioinformatics and medical computing to translate new findings into increasingly precise and specific medical applications. This concerns the areas of inflammation medicine, cardiology, neurology and cancer research. In Kiel and Lübeck, researchers have been applying physical and biochemical methods in bioanalysis, the development of cell-based treatments and innovative approaches based on artificial intelligence that have already attracted worldwide attention.

We have already initiated an analysis of our strengths and weaknesses and begun to discuss which topics will have particular potential in the future. After all, the field of medicine is enormously heterogeneous. For me, it’s important to help focus research questions, to boil them down to one key issue. In the field of inflammation, we have done this very successfully. But there are more topics we will be able to focus on in a similar manner. To give you an example, the development in neuromedicine with regard to movement disorders is extremely interesting.

And there are also some highly advanced approaches with modern cell-based treatments. This will be extremely relevant in the future, and we have decided to make it one of our focus areas in oncological research. Methodological developments such as CRISPR/CAS-9 technology allow us to cut out modified DNA sections in cells using what could be described as molecular scissors and replace them with “healthy” DNA. This has already led to some positive results in the field of leukaemia. In the medium term, we are striving to establish an expert centre for clinical medicine in Kiel in this field.

Another important topic is systems medicine. Health and sickness are no longer evaluated with respect to individual organs, but with respect to the entire system. When we are looking for causes, we can derive very interesting approaches from evolutionary biology. And our excellent microbiome research in Kiel will help us develop a world of interaction we have not previously experienced.

You mentioned that further developing university teaching is very important to you. What are the reforms you have in mind as medicine is becoming increasingly complex?

The new reform of the licensing regulations for medical teaching will probably come into force in 2025. The German Lernzielkatalog (catalogue of learning objectives), to which Kiel has also contributed, has now been completed. As part of university teaching, we strive to enable our students to have contact to patients as early as possible. We must create an early awareness that we are not only learning about organs and organ functions, but that medicine is always about the whole person.

At the moment, this vision is difficult to implement because of the pandemic. We will therefore continue to expand practical simulations and problem-based learning in our teaching effort in order to practice medical and clinical capacities and skills in a better and more controlled manner. In addition to these SkillsLabs, we have already added completely new telemedical approaches for intensive care medicine and neonatology to our teaching this semester.

Medicine can be studied at 34 universities in Germany. Locations include traditional places such as Heidelberg, Tübingen or the Charité in Berlin. Why go to Kiel?

The new University Medical Center, the excellence of our university lecturers and, of course, the appeal of a city by the sea attract a lot of attention. However, I like the fact that the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University is not blowing its own trumpet but rather surprises those interested with outstanding achievements in patient care, research and, not least, teaching. All in all, this is what makes Kiel so attractive.

This interview was conducted by Kerstin Nees

On 1 April 2020, Joachim Thiery took over as full-time Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University from his predecessor Ulrich Stephani. Moreover, Thiery is scientific director and spokesperson for campus management at the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Campus Kiel, and member of the UKSH Board of Directors. Until 2019, Thiery was Director of the Institute of Laboratory Medicine, Clinical Chemistry and Molecular Diagnostics at Leipzig Medical Center. For many years, he was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Leipzig University and Senator of the University. As a member of the scientific advisory board, he has been supporting the Schleswig-Holstein Cluster of Excellence “Inflammation at Interfaces” and the current Cluster of Excellence “Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation” (PMI) since 2013.