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Peter Nickerson in a suit in front of windows

Get to know the new dean of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences

Dr. Nickerson tells us about his plans for the future, his first job in health care, and his travel through northern Canada

September 16, 2022 — 

On Sept. 1, Dr. Peter Nickerson, a prominent physician and researcher in the field of organ transplantation, began his role as dean of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences and dean of the Max Rady College of Medicine, as well as vice-provost (health sciences). We chatted with Nickerson about his plans for the future, his first job in health care, and his travel through northern Canada.

What do you hope to achieve at UM?

As I assume my new role, I am committed to working with the college deans to advance the development of inter-professional health education and inter-disciplinary research. Indeed, I believe the University of Manitoba can excel in this area at both the national and international level such that we can be regarded as a destination by students and faculty seeking such an academic institution. I am also committed to working with our faculty and our partners running Manitoba’s health system to ensure we graduate exceptionally well-trained students to meet the health needs of Manitobans, and that we work to advance research that similarly addresses these needs. Finally, I hope to, in partnership, work towards strategies that dismantle health inequity – it is only by improving and promoting health and wellness in all Manitoba communities that we will achieve a sustainable health system for all Manitobans.

What is your background, and how did you get to your position?

Following undergraduate BSc (med) and MD degrees (1986), I pursued post-graduate training in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in nephrology all at the University of Manitoba and the Winnipeg teaching hospitals. Upon completing my clinical training, I pursed a four-year transplant research fellowship at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston where I studied the immunogenetics and biology of transplant rejection – I felt like an undergrad again as science had advanced so much in the intervening years. Appointed to faculty in 1995 at the University of Manitoba and the Health Sciences Centre, our group conducts translational research whose goal is to improve access and outcomes for kidney transplant recipients. In 2010, I assumed the role of associate dean (research) in the Max Rady College of Medicine and since 2015 have served in the role of vice-dean (research) for the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

What were your favourite subjects when you were in school?

Math and Science – my high school education was in Ottawa when there was a grade 13 and it was the best year with only three math and three science courses. Moving to Winnipeg and enrolling in the Faculty of Science at the University of Manitoba allowed me to expand my knowledge in these areas in preparation for applying to medicine. These subjects address my interest in understanding how things work in complex dynamic systems, which is why I really have enjoyed a career in internal medicine, nephrology, and immunology.

Tell us about one place you have enjoyed visiting and why.

In recent years my wife, Vivienne and I have holiday traveled in northern Canada – a train ride to Churchill, a road trip in the Yukon. As we have taken these trips, we have read up on the history of the north in the places we were going to and come to appreciate more and more how much these communities have contributed to present day Canada. We have also come to realize how much inequity exists in these communities and our obligation as Canadians to address these needs. In the coming years I am hoping to spend more time visiting northern Canada and meeting and learning from the people in these communities.

What’s something that readers would be surprised to learn about you?

Medical school was not my first exposure to health care. At age 16 my first summer job was working at the Grace Hospital in Ottawa in the central supply department – this was the place where we cleaned and sterilized surgical instruments, and other medical ward supplies. Later I worked for nurses on the labour and delivery unit setting and cleaning up delivery rooms. At the end of high school when I was deciding where to go to university my father was transferred to Winnipeg. I had met a couple of obstetrics residents at the Grace and they described having had an excellent medical school experience at the University of Manitoba. After enrolling in the UM Faculty of Science, I had a summer job at the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg as a unit assistant and orderly on medical and surgical wards. Those five years of working in a hospital taught me the value of teamwork and the valuable role everyone plays in delivering high quality patient care. I can also confirm that my undergraduate medical training was outstanding at the University of Manitoba.

Tell us about a person who has shaped you as a person or in your career.

A difficult question – hard to pick any one person so I will share a few. David Rush, a UM professor celebrating his 40th year on faculty, recruited me into nephrology and transplantation and he has been both a mentor and colleague for the last 30 years – he has always impressed me with his drive to seek out evidence-based answers to questions that will improve patient outcomes. Leah Hollins, former deputy minister of health in BC and chair of the Canadian Council for Organ Donation and Transplantation. As a board member I was impressed and learnt a lot from Leah about seeking consensus across 13 provinces and territories – consensus building is truly an art (especially between independent Canadian health care systems) and something I think Canadians have a reputation for. I could not have asked for a better role model than Leah. Finally, Brian Postl, his knowledge in health systems, his commitment to advancing health education and social accountability are well known. For the last 12 years, I could not have had a better role model and mentor in preparation to become dean.

What do you like to do in your down time?

Vivienne and I have for many years enjoyed backcountry canoeing in Nopiming Provincial Park, theatre at RMTC and the Warehouse, and in recent years, spending time with our grandchildren. Winnipeg and Manitoba are fantastic for all three of these (luckily the grandchildren all live in Winnipeg). Recently, we have taken up dinghy sailing and moved from tents on the ground to a small travel trailer. As COVID settles we are looking forward to exploring the country by road over the next few years during our summer holidays.

What have you done that you’re most proud of?

The translation of research into clinical policy and practice has really been a highlight of my career. In this regard the University of Manitoba and Health Sciences Centre have been world-leaders. Based on our research we were the first clinical program in Canada to make flow-cytometry based crossmatching a standard of care, which immediately improved kidney transplant patient outcomes and over the next decade this laboratory assay became the national standard in transplant care. Moreover, our research served as the basis for the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Health tasking Canadian Blood Services with setting up national kidney donor sharing programs, which has directly improved patient access. Previously it was exceedingly difficult for some individuals (primarily women who had developed antibodies through pregnancy) to find a compatible kidney donor. Now patients have access to the entire Canadian organ donor pool rather than being restricted to only organ donors in their province.

Our group’s recent research is also getting international attention as the basis for precision medicine in directing kidney transplant immunosuppression (i.e., giving the right amount of medication based on an individual’s specific need, thereby avoiding too much or too little immunosuppression to control the recipient’s immune system). Indeed, in partnership with Dr. Peter Heeger, my collaborator at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, we have just been awarded USD$29 million from the US National Institutes of Health to conduct a multicenter kidney transplant clinical trial intended to validate a laboratory test in support of precision medicine that was developed by our group at the University of Manitoba.

What’s one piece of advice you have for students?

Follow your passion in your career and never stop learning – we are very blessed and privileged to have an advanced education that opens multiple paths throughout our lifetime. Many times, you will be faced with new job and learning opportunities – embrace these challenges as they come but make sure your decisions are motivated by their alignment with your interests and what you want to achieve beyond yourself. I have found that this has led to a very rewarding career that I look back on with no regrets.

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