For nearly three decades, Seward Rutkove, MD, has helped care for the patients of BIDMC and promoted advancements in medical education and research. As the Chair of the Department of Neurology at BIDMC and the Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Rutkove is a prolific researcher who has focused on developing innovative neurophysiological techniques to assess neuromuscular disorders, including muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to speed drug trials and find effective therapies faster. His research has moved in many other directions, including inventing new devices, identifying potential new therapeutic approaches to nerve and muscle deterioration, and with NASA funding, ensuring future astronauts on missions to the Moon and Mars have the functional capability needed to carry out their missions.
We spoke with Dr. Rutkove about his vision for the Department of Neurology and the importance of philanthropy.
Do you have any reflections from your first year as department chair?
First, I’m thrilled and honored to have the privilege of leading such an exceptional department. We have a tremendous team of clinicians, researchers, nurses, administrators, and staff. Being chair has been both challenging and extraordinarily gratifying. There is a multitude of duties, including ensuring that clinical care is always top-notch, balancing budgets, recruiting new faculty, promoting and supporting existing faculty, achieving excellence in education, and all while maintaining a clear line-of-sight on longer-term objectives. The first year is over, but our work is only beginning.
On reflection, it’s incredible to think that I came to BIDMC almost 30 years ago. With the strong support of Dr. Clif Saper, the previous department chair, I was able to launch, sustain, and build my career. And it is a true gift and joy to now help lead this group of truly talented colleagues and friends.
How did you decide to become a neurologist?
From a very young age, I knew I wanted to become a doctor. My grandfather played an important role in that desire. He had worked as an electrician, wiring up battleships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II and he introduced me to a variety of different simple battery-operated electrical projects, like building crystal radios and circuits with lightbulbs and switches. I was fascinated by it all. That sparked my initial interest in science and electronics. My grandfather also had epilepsy, and on a couple of occasions I was alone with him when he had a generalized seizure, which were very powerful and disturbing events to witness as a small child.
What makes BIDMC’s Department of Neurology unique?
I believe our program emphasizes the care of the whole patient and recognizes the importance of personalized treatment along with emotional support. There is no question in my mind that BIDMC’s culture of caring is well-established; our department embodies this.
Much of what makes our department unique has been fueled by philanthropy. We are distinguished by the tremendous depth and breadth of our research. This includes basic laboratory investigations in sleep and autism, innovative research around viral vectors for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, and influential clinical studies on stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. We are also national leaders in neuromodulation treatments, including deep brain stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and transcranial magnetic stimulation for the treatment of depression and seizures. Our exceptional Wellness Works program treats patients with movement disorders and gait limitations. Much of this work has been supported by generous donors.
How would you describe your vision for the department?
I am passionate about innovation, and always excited when colleagues come up with new ideas for research avenues, therapies, and devices. So, I really want the department to continue pursuing novel, out-of-the-box ideas, to not be afraid to disrupt what is considered “standard practice,” and to always think about what is going to have the greatest positive impact. Philanthropy is an incredible driver for this. Seed funding for new, groundbreaking ideas can spark innovation and discovery. This simply isn’t possible through more traditional funding like federal grants. For example, the Schilder family has supported countless pilot projects through the years that have yielded new early data that could be used to apply for and obtain large federal grants. Philanthropic seed money can make a world of difference.
With the creation of the Beth Israel Lahey Health (BILH) system, we have many new opportunities. For example, we are exploring new system-wide initiatives around memory disorders, neuro-oncology, epilepsy, and telestroke services. In addition, our goal is to one day give patients from across BILH the opportunity to enroll in clinical trials, offering access to promising new treatments and advances, without needing to drive to BIDMC or to participate even from home.
How do education and research fit in?
These are major priorities. As Vice Chair of Education, Bernard Chang, MD, is working to bring together all of our trainees, residents, fellows, postdoctoral associates alike, in a more formalized way, providing opportunities for them to learn from one another. Vice Chair of Research Janet Mullington, PhD, is establishing a new translational science training program so our trainees and faculty can help facilitate the transformation of an idea from an early laboratory investigation into a commercialized therapeutic or diagnostic.
Ultimately, I think that each of our program’s three pillars—clinical care, research, and medical education—is self-reinforcing. If you do well in one, you enhance the other two. For example, by integrating research into our residency training program, we strengthen our educational offerings. And by integrating research into our clinical care, we can provide our patients with the most promising cutting-edge therapies.
Could you speak more to the role of philanthropy in all this?
The answer is simple: philanthropy advances everything we do every day. We are so fortunate to receive generous ongoing support from our many visionary philanthropists. Our success is thanks in large part to generous donors who recognize the promise of our work, and I am so grateful for them. Key areas where philanthropy is needed to make a critical impact include cognitive neurology, movement disorders, neuromuscular disorders, and stroke, where we are working on fundamentally shifting paradigms of how treatment is approached and administered.