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Research Initiative at the MGH Institute

“It was always apparent to the Board of Trustees that to be a first-rate educational institution, to compete for students and faculty on a national level, and to be seen as a leader particularly in a community like Boston, there needed to be a dedicated research component,” says former board Chair George Thibault, MD. “Even though we’d always had faculty who were involved in research, we had never really made the financial commitments and the planning needed to create a deliberate strategy.”

What jump started the Institute’s research initiative was a special report commissioned by then Director of Research Robert Hillman and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Alex Johnson. Led by MIT professor and former Trustee John Guttag, a group of outside experts spent several months examining the pros and cons of launching a dedicated research initiative. While the 2010 report was generally supportive, it remained unclear if it would be a good investment since academic research programs, at best, are a break-even proposition.

“The Institute was a thriving institution, turning out some of the best health care professionals in the world, and it would have been a reasonable decision to decide that having a strong reputation for educating outstanding health professionals was sufficient,” Guttag says. “It had a culture that worked, but that culture would have to change in significant ways. And if the school tried to build a research program and failed, it would have broken a lot of eggs without producing an omelet.”

Being located in Boston, one of the world’s largest and most renowned research centers, school leaders knew it didn’t make sense to compete head-on with such powerhouses as Harvard and MIT. Instead, they decided to concentrate on a topic that already was integral to its core mission: rehabilitation.

“We had several degrees in the rehabilitation sciences, and a critical mass of faculty with interests and talents already on campus that filled that niche, plus we recognized that concentrating on rehabilitation was synergistic with work that is taking place in many of the region’s research centers,” explains Thibault. “We knew we couldn’t do research across a wide spectrum. It needed to be focused on the areas where we could have solutions to offer.”

The Trustees in 2011 overwhelmingly approved allocating the necessary financial support for both the research initiative and an accompanying PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences program, which was a critical component of the overall plan. A strategy was devised to begin the process of attracting acclaimed faculty researchers while simultaneously developing the research facilities they would need for their work.

It took less than a year to entice the first researcher. Cancer fatigue syndrome expert Lisa Wood was named Amelia Peabody Chair in Nursing Research and created the Fatigue Research Lab in 2012. She joined now Professor Emerita Diane Mahoney, Jacques Mohr Professor of Geriatric Nursing Research, who for years had been investigating ways technology can assist dementia patients and their caregivers.

Just a year after Wood’s arrival came a double coup: two of the nation’s eminent speech-language pathology researchers, Jordan Green, Director of the Speech and Feeding Disorder Lab, and Tiffany Hogan, Director of the SAiL Literacy Lab, joined the nascent initiative, bringing expertise in ALS, speech motor control, and reading and learning disabilities.

In 2013 the Institute opened a 14,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Center for Health & Rehabilitation Research in Building 79/96 to accommodate faculty researchers who are leading the Institute’s growing focus on research.

In 2017 eminent PT researcher Teresa Jacobson Kimberley joined the MGH Institute as Director of the Brain Recovery Lab. Her work has helped to pioneer the use of neuroimaging and non-invasive brain stimulation in the investigation of rehabilitation-related areas.

A number of other researchers have joined the IHP research initiative since 2012, including Director of the BEAM Lab Joanna Christodoulou, and Co-Directors of the Cognitive Neuroscience Group Yael Arbel, Sofia Villila Rohter, and Lauryn Zipse – learn more about our current researchers.

Add to that the pioneering students who took a leap of faith to join the fledgling PhD program, along with the creation of top-of-the-line research labs, and suddenly the Institute’s plan was gaining traction—much faster than anyone had anticipated.

The invigorated effort has brought in over $24 million in research grants since 2012—far more than the combined amount of awards in the previous several years—and has helped the Institute establish a solid reputation for building and translating knowledge to improve health and quality of life.

Our researchers, along with other faculty, are collaborating with medical researchers at many of Boston’s hospitals within and outside the Partners HealthCare System, and at Harvard, MIT, and other universities and institutions around the country and across the globe. “People at these institutions don’t choose collaborators to be nice. They choose collaborators who they think can advance their work,” notes Guttag. “The IHP is now playing with the big players.”