Good Medicine: MSU College Brings New Professionals to Grand Rapids

Now that the towering cranes used to construct the Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine are almost all down, there's an entirely different investment flowing into the metro Grand Rapids area. It's no longer just brick and mortar, but now flesh and blood.

"It took a while to get me here," says Asgerally T. Fazleabas, an internationally renowned researcher who relocated to metro Grand Rapids from Chicago to join MSU's medical school. "I had to sit down and say 'Is the grass really greener?'"

After two years of recruiting by MSU and visits to Grand Rapids, Fazleabas decided it was. And he's being joined by a small army of other professionals who hope to build a world-class medical school in a unique context that combines clinical, educational and investigative resources.

The challenge is to get the attention of candidates who sometimes have preconceived notions about the Michigan economy or life in Grand Rapids, says Dr. Marsha D. Rappley, dean of the college. But, like Fazleabas, "once they come, they want to come back," she says.

"Their eyes light up when we talk about quality of life in Grand Rapids," Rappley says. "That's not from me telling them about it. That's from their experience in visiting.

"Grand Rapids is making this part of my job easy. It's not a hard sell. It's really a great place to work and raise a family."

Right Direction
In a conference room with a southward view of Division Avenue from his new employer's makeshift headquarters, Fazleabas sat facing north. That's where MSU's medical school will complete its expansion in Grand Rapids this fall and occupy The Secchia Center, now under construction at 15 Michigan St. NE.

The professional attraction stares Fazleabas in the face: It's a chance for the longtime researcher to help build a top-notch organization from scratch. 

But for that opportunity, Fazleabas left behind the world-class amenities of Chicago, where he lived the past several years while working at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

Called "Asgi" by name and, by title, associate chair of research in the medical school's department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology, Fazleabas has impeccable credentials.  He is fresh from giving a talk at the International Congress of Endocrinology in Japan, and this summer he will be honored at the Society for the Study of Reproduction's annual meeting in Milwaukee for his work. As one would expect, Fazleabas had been courted over the years by a number of institutions.

But with all that Grand Rapids may lack vis-à-vis Chicago, the married father of two was impressed with the overall quality of life here.

For one, there's no longer the commute from suburban Naperville, Ill. that often took more than an hour by car. His children's extracurricular pursuits are more accessible and the area's cultural amenities, like the Civic Theatre just down the street from the med school's temporary home at 234 N. Division Ave., are plentiful. His wife, Sheri, who runs an adventure tourism business, A&S Travels Inc., was introduced right away to local chamber of commerce leaders and now herself feels at home here.

"My family just absolutely loves it here," says Fazleabas, 58, a native Sri Lankan who arrived in October. "There's a lot of good culture, good theater, good symphony. It's a city that has a lot to offer.

"I can do a lot more things with my family. I can drop the kids off at school in the morning. I can get home for dinner. In Chicago, I could never predict."

Investing in Human Capital
Newcomers are finding both professional and personal pleasure in Grand Rapids, yielding potential that more of their decorated colleagues may follow. Many of the med school's 50 faculty and staff here are locals, while "most of our research investigators we're hiring from across the country," Rappley says. That includes a handful in the obstetrics department chaired by Dr. Richard Leach, a former Fazleabas colleague at Illinois who in 2007 signed on as MSU's first Grand Rapids recruit.

The school this fall expects 250 students at The Secchia Center, including its initial first-year class of 100. Many students live downtown, while faculty are settling both in the city and the suburbs. Fazleabas, for example, lives in a downtown condo now and soon plans to reside in Ada where his elementary-aged children attend Forest Hills Public Schools. His current commute of about two minutes will increase, perhaps to 15 minutes.

John Risinger timed his commute at 18 minutes. But then, the former National Cancer Institute researcher's Cannonsburg home has room enough for a hobby farm and a few thousand feet of Bear Creek frontage. Not bad for a scientist who used to endure a Bethesda, Md. commute ranging from 40 to 80 minutes.

"It's still accessible, so you can work in this extremely high-quality medical care environment and this nationally-known research environment and still be 10 to 15 minutes away from home," Rappley says. "It speaks to the fact that Grand Rapids is a major city without the congestion."

Risinger a few years ago left the federal gig for greater interaction with clinicians as part of a standalone cancer institute associated with a hospital and medical school in Savannah, Ga. Then he was alerted to the MSU expansion in Grand Rapids and the school's synergy with Spectrum Health, St. Mary's Health Care and Van Andel Institute: Bigger school, bigger hospital, bigger potential for translational research.

"It was just like what attracted us to Savannah, but it was on steroids," says Risinger, associate professor and director of gynecologic oncology research.

His wife, Tracy Thompson, got a job with MSU's Institute for Health Care Studies, and his 5-year-old daughter will attend Rockford Public Schools, an option he deemed superior to Georgia's public education and cheaper than its private alternatives. Plus, there's the creek through his property and the area's other natural amenities to enjoy.

"I love to fish and this part of the world has some of the best fishing in the world," says Risinger, 44. "The quality of life and the fact that you can still maintain all the things you want to do in your career is the reason (I moved here).

"It's a pretty unique place."

Enthusiasm to Do
Rappley uses words like "vibrancy and vitality" to describe downtown's burgeoning health care sector, where rising above the state's general economic decline the past few years have been the cranes erecting the Van Andel Institute expansion, the new DeVos Children's Hospital and the $90 million Secchia Center. Surrounded by new buildings housing new enterprises are "lots of people who are young, who are engaged in what they're doing, who are passionate about what they're doing," the dean says.

Leach sensed right away an "enthusiasm to do something new." What Fazleabas described as a "can-do attitude," Leach calls commitment to a vision of building an obstetrics and gynecology department with research support. The team of researchers, with laboratory space at Van Andel Institute, aspires to create non-surgical diagnostics of endometriosis and design drugs to improve quality of life for women with the condition. Through the alliance of MSU, Van Andel and the local hospitals, doctors and researchers are working hand in hand.

"There is an opportunity to do something here that, quite frankly, is not being done many other places in the country," says Leach, 56, an Alma College alum. "It's really an opportunity to do something from the ground level. That message of vision is the same vision that I was able to communicate to Dr. Risinger and Dr. Fazleabas, and both of them were also visionaries in that way."

So with the physical infrastructure built, the job, as Fazleabas says, is "to build a nucleus of excellent scientists that are going to attract others" to continue developing a world-class health care setting.

Fazleabas followed Leach to MSU and now some of his researchers from Chicago are coming to join him. He also just hired a Chinese researcher who had been working in Sweden. Vocation aside, what the incoming professionals are finding is that the culture of Grand Rapids is world-class in its own right. Among the recruits is an avid golfer who most certainly finds this area green.

"The bottom line is this community has all of the arts and entertainment that my wife and I need," Leach says. "It has a tremendous sense of community that's palpable. It's very refreshing."


Matt Vande Bunte writes about business, government, religion and other things. His work has appeared in newspapers including The Grand Rapids Press and Chicago Tribune and in assorted sectors of cyberspace.

Photos:

Asgerally T. Fazleabas (3)

Views of Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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