Promotions 2021: Q&A with Gerold Schmitt-Ulms

Gerold Schmitt-Ulms

This year, we celebrate a record 12 promotions in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology.

We speak to each of them to learn more about their role and what this promotion means to them.

Dr. Gerold Schmitt-Ulms has been promoted to Full Professor.

What is your role in LMP?

I am a neuroscientist at the Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative diseases (Tanz CRND), and a Graduate Faculty member in the Collaborative Program in Neuroscience (CPIN) and the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology (LMP).

I coordinate undergraduate and graduate LMP courses on neurodegenerative diseases and supervise trainees at all academic levels. In these capacities, I try to inspire trainees to focus on getting the science right and to seek solutions to major challenges.

My team’s research centers on Alzheimer’s disease, prion disorders, and related dementias. Our main objective is to develop disease interventions and early diagnostics that build on biological insights and an understanding of disease mechanisms.

Why did you pursue an academic career?

Two experiences shaped this decision.

After I graduated from high school in Germany, I worked for two years full-time with severely handicapped individuals, many of whom had debilitating brain damage. This prompted my interest in a career dedicated to finding cures for brain diseases.

Ten years later, after completing a PhD focused on Alzheimer's disease at a Max-Planck unit in Hamburg, Germany under the supervision of Dr. Eckhardt Mandelkow, I secured a postdoc training position with Dr. Stanley Prusiner. His groundbreaking work on prion diseases inspired me. After four rewarding years at the University of California San Francisco, I looked for an opportunity that offered protected research time. I was hoping to use this time studying aspects of the molecular biology underlying Alzheimer’s disease and prion disorders that might open a door to treatments. I considered several avenues, academic, and industry, at that time. I felt the Tanz CRND at the University of Toronto provided the best environment for implementing this goal.

What does this promotion mean to you?

Hopefully, it will further strengthen my ability to secure funding.

If you can go back, what advice would you give your younger self?

If you meet an Irish woman in Argentina, marry her!

Dive early and deeply into whatever you find most interesting. Do not chase marks - unless you are top of the class and thereby destined to get inundated with stipends and awards. Learn relevant leading-edge skills. Do not shy away from big questions you are passionate about. Try to work with the most impressive scientists and mentors in your field of interest.

With time and patience, opportunities will present themselves. Although many researchers adopt these approaches eventually, those who do so early are likely to get noticed.

What advice would you give faculty who would like to apply for promotion?

So long as a promotion still seems a distant goal, I advise faculty to engage in the passionate pursuit of a significant scientific challenge in a manner that is not distracted by thoughts about promotions.

I also recommend they ignore flawed benchmarks of perceived scientific productivity, such as H-factors or the Impact Factors of journals. Adopting this philosophy early on saved my team valuable time and helped us focus on what matters most to us, and eventually also impresses promotion committees, namely, to seek answers, not recognition.

Once things start to come together in a good way, I recommend attending the well-organized LMP workshop that teaches attendees how to avoid the most notorious blunders encountered in promotion dossiers.

How did you manage your time in putting your dossier together considering your multiple priorities?

In the past year, the pandemic changed many things for most of us.

For me, the extended stay-at-home requirements translated into time saved on commutes. This temporary gain in disposable time - which has since been swallowed by extra work time - prompted me to invest my first hour of work each day during the month of April 2020 on the assembly of a draft dossier. During this hour, I did not open my email inbox, which almost certainly would have diverted my attention to other demands that will always seem, and frankly are, more pressing.

Find out more about promotion

Promotion guidelines: to Associate Professor and Professor

Contact Patricia Cayetano at patricia.cayetano@utoronto.ca if you are a faculty member in LMP and want to learn more about the promotion process, workshops, and more.