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New research dean brings fervor for innovation

Alexander Parker, PhD, walks around the UF Health Jacksonville campus with an enthusiasm that is nearly unmatched.

In meetings, he speaks passionately about ways to advance research on a campus that is already positioning itself as the region’s premier academic health center. To move things even further, Parker says faculty members should ask themselves a simple, yet powerful, question: “Why?”

Why do clinicians and scientists engage in research? Is it for money and recognition? Is it because of simple curiosity, or is there a deeper desire to leave a positive and lasting impact on the world?

Parker says the last reason is what the UF Health community must keep in mind because that is where true gratification and fulfillment exist.

“I want to help people explore their motivations for doing research,” said Parker, who recently left Mayo Clinic to become the new senior associate dean for research at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville. “There is a lot of amazing research happening here. I can help build on this momentum and support a culture that knows why we do research. We want to ultimately practice better medicine and better public health.”

A curious mind

Parker said he was an inquisitive child growing up in Winston- Salem, North Carolina. He always had a curious mind and didn’t like to take answers at face value, even if that sometimes got him in trouble with his parents and other adults. He couldn’t stop asking that one question: “Why?”

That curiosity persisted through grade school and into college, where he developed a great appreciation for research’s role as an agent of change.

“Early on, I figured out if you really want to touch a lot of lives and have a lasting impact, you do research,” Parker said. “You figure out answers to important questions and you move entire fields forward, not just one patient at a time. I love the idea of being able to have sustainable impact on much broader populations.”

For most of his career as an epidemiologist, Parker’s research has centered on urologic cancers, with a particular focus on improving ways to prevent, diagnose and treat kidney cancer. For example, he helped create a clinical scoring algorithm that allows urologists to provide better, more individualized management of patients following surgery for kidney cancer.

“I spent 10 years working closely with our team of clinicians and scientists to better understand the various factors — molecular and otherwise — that can more accurately help determine how patients will fare after their surgery,” Parker said. “What makes us happy now aren’t the papers we wrote or the grants we received but, more importantly, that urologists can now use this information to provide better care.”

Parker has brought that mindset to UF Health Jacksonville, where a precision medicine movement is already underway. This field seeks to leverage technological advancements, primarily around genetic sequencing, to better tailor treatments to the specific needs of the individual patient. The opportunities do not end there, though.

“The approach doesn’t have to be restricted to just using genetics to help guide therapy. We want to explore any technology that gets us better, more personalized answers for patients,” said Parker, who is also director of precision medicine at UF Health Jacksonville. “Precision medicine can be applied across the spectrum of human disease, from prevention and diagnosis to treatment and even quality of life.”

Research at UF Health

One recent afternoon, Parker found the nearest whiteboard to illustrate his vision for research on campus. After detailing the various reasons why people conduct research, he delved into what researchers do: They innovate, test, communicate and transform.

“We can use the problems we see every day in the clinic and community to generate innovative problem-solving ideas,” Parker said. “Then we must have a system that allows us to rigorously and efficiently test those ideas, share the information gained and take things to their logical conclusion. Implementing the change is the toughest part.”

Since arriving on campus, Parker has been meeting with department chairs and other leaders to better understand what role research plays in achieving their respective clinical and academic goals. From those meetings, he has begun developing a broad plan to recruit and retain talent, invest in innovative technology and build a research culture of collaboration and partnership — in Jacksonville and beyond.

“We have to collaborate. The world is too big, the problems are too complex and the tools are too sophisticated to think any one person or any one institution can do anything by themselves,” Parker said. “In large part, my interactions with physicians here are to make sure we’re exploring questions that really matter. Are we making the best use of our people and resources?”

Parker spent more than 15 years at Mayo Clinic, where he held several leadership positions, including vice chair of health sciences research, associate director of the Center for Individualized Medicine, associate medical director of development and a board member of the Executive Operating Team. He said coming to UF Health had appeal for many reasons, but primarily because of its mission that includes a dual focus on community and clinical care.

“There’s a community here and a population we’re responsible for,” Parker said. “The sensibility of why we exist is around health and wellness, not just high-acuity, complex medical care.”

Leon L. Haley Jr., MD, MHSA, CEO of UF Health Jacksonville and dean of the College of Medicine, was thrilled to welcome Parker to campus and believes he is helping the enterprise further its vision to be the region’s most valued health care asset.

“As we continue to expand our research efforts, we sought someone with a dynamic background, a strong research portfolio and experience leading large-scale initiatives,” Haley said. “Dr. Parker is the perfect fit and we are glad to have him here.”

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