September 30, 2008

Weill Qatar’s First Dean and Pioneer Retires Post

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After 43 years as professor and administrator of the Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Daniel R. Alonso announced his retirement as dean of the school’s Qatar campus. When he leaves this January, he will be replaced by Deputy Dean Dr. Javaid Sheikh. Alonso’s retirement comes shortly after the graduation of WCMC-Q’s first class in May.
“He brought really bold vision to the project,” said Dr. Carol Storey-Johnson, senior associate dean of education, WCMC in Manhattan. “He had faith in the project at a time when people weren’t sure it would work.”
Alonso was the first dean of the Qatar campus in Doha, a bold new step in global medicine. WCMC-Q is the first American medical school in a foreign country. The recent graduates are the first doctors ever to be trained in Doha’s Education City.
Though he has been the catalyst for the success of the relatively new Qatar campus, Alonso has been extensively involved with WCMC. Prior to accepting the Qatar position, he was senior associate dean for academic affairs and a professor.
“He was really an outstanding professor in the Department of Pathology,” remarked Storey-Johnson, a former student of Alonso’s. “I remember he has always been very creative in his teaching.”
He was instrumental in developing the college’s new curriculum in the 1990s, which consisted of small class sizes and innovative technological teaching methods.
“He was ready for another challenge after being the academic dean in New York for 20 years,” said Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of WCMC.
Alonso brought his innovative teaching methods to the Qatar job. He formed a partnership with Prof. James Maas Ph.D ’66, psychology, who teaches his PSYCH 1101 class via fiber optic cable to the students in Doha. However, there was skepticism about the scope and breadth of Alonso’s vision for the campus, even from Maas himself.
“When he first asked me to deliver Psych 101 from abroad, I thought he was crazy,” Maas said. “He had faith in me, more than I had in myself. Due to him, his motivation, his leadership, I was lucky enough to be part of this zeitgeist he created.”
The program came about from Cornell’s partnership with the Qatar Foundation, a private, non-profit organization chartered in 1995 to promote the education and research opportunities for Qatar’s people. The Qatar Campus is part of Education City, a work-in-progress of the Qatar Foundation. Texas A & M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Virginia Commonwealth all sponsor institutions of higher learning in Education City, but WCMC-Q is the only graduate level program.
The Qatar campus has grown exponentially since it was just a twinkle in the eye of WCMC deans and Qatar Foundation trustees. Plans for WCMC-Q began in 2000, and by January 2001, Alonso accepted his post as dean of the soon-to-be-built institution.
“He built a medical school from scratch,” Storey-Johnston said. “He recruited faculty, and instituted and implemented curriculum.”
The first year was spent in a renovated wing of a high school, before the faculty and students moved into the newly built campus. Despite being thousands of miles from WCMC’s main New York campus, the Qatar school managed to maintain Weill’s unique curriculum and high expectations.
“The greatest accomplishment is shepherding the first students from pre-medical status all the way to graduation this year,” said Gotto, who worked closely with Alonso on the project. “No one has ever transported [our] curriculum to a different culture. He did this through skill, diplomacy, insight and with cultural sensitivity.”
“Because of Dan, there’s tremendous interaction between students and faculty,” Maas said.
Alonso will remain in a guiding role for the campus, as dean emeritus. In an e-mail interview, Alonso cited a bright future for the school. In addition to moving forward with developing WCMC-Q, Cornell is also planning “a world-class hospital on campus and the first biomedical research program in Qatar.”
“We have successfully completed the first implementation of the education program; we must now implement our research and patient care missions; both are underway,” Alonso stated. “I am grateful to Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College for having given me the opportunity to serve on the faculty and the administration for 43 years. I feel lucky and honored to have worked with so many people during those years.”