The article below was originally published on 9/13/2019 in the Miami Herald (click for additional video footage). Florida International University recruited Dr. Robert Sackstein from Harvard as a medical dean. Dr. Sackstein became dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and senior VP for health affairs on January 2, 2019.
Dr. Robert Sackstein can see where he grew up from his sixth-floor office.
He points south to a smokestack near where his family settled after fleeing Cuba in 1960. That’s where he biked up an unpaved Southwest 112th Avenue to marvel at the planes coming and going from the old Tamiami Airport, before cranes took over and the land became a construction site for Florida International University.
He didn’t know it then, but Sackstein watched his future workplace come to life. A months-long national search for the second dean of FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine yielded someone who grew up down the street.
“I am grounded every day by driving through the very neighborhood I grew up in,” Sackstein said. “I understand this community and I want to help our community, and I’m Miami 100% all the way.”
Sackstein was chosen out of five finalists for the job last October. He officially started in January, but now comes the hard part: crafting a new $50 million budget and leading the emerging medical school through its first transition under a new dean.
“It can’t get any better than this,” he said. “I’m home.”
Harvard may be where Sackstein earned his undergraduate degree, went to medical school and worked as a leading researcher and professor for over two decades, but home — Miami — is where Sackstein’s interest in medicine was piqued.
The Sacksteins struggled when they first arrived in the Westwood Lakes neighborhood. Not having a piano in their home was demoralizing to his prodigy mother, Rosalina Sackstein, who later became a famed piano teacher and renowned professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.
Sackstein himself resisted learning English until a fourth-grade teacher at Cypress Elementary taught him the universal language of math. He then realized his uncle, a surgeon, found immediate employment in the United States.
That kind of work also held the antidote to Sackstein’s grandmother’s high blood pressure. At age 9, Sackstein said he promised his grandmother that he’d find a cure, and at age 13 he enrolled in a Miami-Dade County Public Schools program that allowed students to do research for credit at a University of Miami laboratory. A researcher named Dr. Murray Epstein was studying hypertension in rats.
Sackstein’s father drove his son to Epstein’s lab. Epstein, recently discharged as an Air Force flight surgeon, was focused on establishing a functional lab and hesitant to take on a young student.
“They would not take no for an answer,” Epstein told the Miami Herald. “We discussed things and decided he was so eager for the position that I relented.”
Sackstein’s hard work found early, preliminary results that contributed in part to the subsequent development of Captopril, the drug that became the precursor to several important medications for blood pressure therapy. Epstein said he’s delighted and fulfilled that Sackstein’s career has come full circle.
“He saw his future in giving back and being a dean at a major medical school,” Epstein said. “To him, there’s a lot of nuances with having that occur in the city of Miami.”
Sackstein finished that work with Epstein at 16 while a student at Southwest Senior High. That’s where he met his best friend, now prominent Miami attorney Sam Dubbin. Dubbin served as an adviser to another homegrown figure, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and as chief counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Clinton administration.
The pair were roommates for four years at Harvard. They are godparents to each other’s children.
“I would say there was a dream in the back of his mind in returning back to Miami, to make Miami a first-class medical community, a healthcare providing community,” Dubbin said. “I think it’s a real credit to FIU that they had the vision to bring in Dr. Sackstein with his experience at Harvard and his research background with NIH [National Institutes of Health] research grants, to be able to combine all of those talents in a leadership capacity for the university.”
FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg says that’s what set Sackstein apart from other candidates for the job, including the sole internal candidate, Dr. Pedro “Joe” Greer, who remains at the medical school.
“Dr. Sackstein emerged as the fit we were looking for,” Rosenberg told the Herald. “He’s a researcher, he has passion, he’s a teacher almost instinctively. I don’t think I’ve met anyone with a bigger heart than Robert Sackstein.”
FIU began looking for a new leader of the medical school when its founding dean, John Rock, took a leave of absence last year to serve as founding dean of the college of medicine at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Rock will serve as the first John and Mary Lou Dasburg Chair in Medicine when he returns.
Sackstein is making quite a bit more than his predecessor: His salary is $700,000, compared to Rock’s $539,537. And he’ll get to steer the medical school, barely a decade old, into a new era that will emphasize research.
He’s created a new department called Translational Medicine. It combines Medicine, currently a division within the department of Humanities, Health and Society, with Neuroscience and Medical and Population Health Sciences Research. He says the department removes silos with hopes of improving clinical outcomes.
Sackstein said he is also committed to preserving the medical school’s role in NeighborhoodHELP, which pairs a team of medical students as well as nursing and social work students with low-income residents of several communities to provide free medical care and assistance with legal issues and other care. It’s a program that has set FIU’s medical school apart as a unique community-based and mission-driven educational experience.
“The overall balance that Robert Sackstein presented was very compelling,” Rosenberg said. “This is a research university that really values practice and experience.”
Sackstein was in medical school when a successful bone marrow transplant turned fatal in a 16-year-old from Central America. He says that inspired him to go into research instead of clinical medicine, focusing instead on improving care.
“I never felt comfortable treating people unless I could cure them,” Sackstein said. “I always felt terrible charging someone for care.”
Sackstein studied how to make bone marrow transplants safer. He learned about how cells travel in the bloodstream, and his research morphed into the little known field of glycobiology, which studies how sugars control biological processes.
While at Harvard, Sackstein wrote and secured a multimillion-dollar grant with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to educate the next generation of leaders in glycobiology. Because Harvard and the NIH did not wish to lose Sackstein’s leadership on the grant, Harvard and the NIH are allowing four FIU trainees to be educated via the grant and known as “Harvard Scholars.” Sackstein remains a professor emeritus at Harvard.
Sackstein is also leading research to use cell-based therapy to cure cancer as well as autoimmune and degenerative diseases. There is an ongoing trial in Spain to reverse osteoporosis in women.
As for new ventures at FIU, Sackstein was able to move an NIH grant focused on finding a cure for leukemia to FIU. He also has NIH funding to support a collaborative FIU-MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston) research project related to immune cell therapy for leukemia.
He also wants to ramp up philanthropic funding, which he says is sorely lacking. Graduates of the medical school, which has nowhere near the endowments of more established medical schools, are early in their careers and might not yet have the financial footing to give back.
“This is a school that accepts people regardless of their ability to pay,” Sackstein said. “It is an equal opportunity maker and yet I fear that no one’s really appreciated this gem in their backyard.”
Sackstein also wants to bring back the same research opportunities he had as a kid for students in high schools surrounding FIU at no cost to the school district. He’s already started that conversation with representatives from the Miami-Dade County School Board.