Trading the Big Apple for Furniture City

July 8, 2010
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Rosemary A. Martino’s eyes, once blinded by New York City, have been opened to the treasures of fly-over country.

A Long Island native, Martino never expected to leave the nation’s largest metropolitan area — until she encountered Grand Rapids.

“If you had said to me, ‘Rosemary, you’re going to be living in Michigan in a couple of years,’ I would have looked at you and said ‘Ha ha ha, no way. I’m a New York girl.’ My entire life has been in New York, with the exception of one year and that was in Boston,” said Martino, executive dean of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids.

Today, 2½ years after trading the Big Apple for Furniture City, Martino bubbles over with enthusiasm for her adopted town.

“It’s all about collaboration in this town. It’s all about connections and networking, about people wanting to do something and getting it done together. That’s what makes this place, I think,” she said. The 15-minute commutes, reasonable housing prices and easy access to Lake Michigan don’t hurt, either.

Martino leads the local team that this summer is seeing a dream come into full blossom: the expansion of the MSU medical school into Grand Rapids. The $90 million building at the northeast corner of Michigan Street and Division Avenue, funded by a $10 million donation from MSU alum and local businessman Peter Secchia and other private money, opened to staff last month and will be dedicated during nearly a week of celebrations in September. Some 200 first- and second-year medical students will attend classes there this fall, and it will serve as the hub for third- and fourth-year students assigned to clinical rotations at local hospitals.

But the building across Michigan Street — the Van Andel Institute — is just as important to this Spartan outpost. The idea of bringing a medical school to Grand Rapids was spawned by the 1996 creation of the VAI, a nonprofit charitable trust, for scientific research. The school also was considered crucial to make good use of the millions of dollars Spectrum Health and Saint Mary’s Health Care have spent in expanding and upgrading their facilities in the city.

MSU, Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s and the VAI, along with Grand Valley State University, Grand Action and The Right Place Inc., joined forces on the shared dream. The VAI, MSU and the hospitals have combined financial resources to hire researchers, who are on the MSU med school payroll and work in the VAI, with an emphasis on Parkinson’s disease and women’s reproductive health.

Martino has been heavily involved in recruiting scientists whose laboratories are housed on the fourth floor of the new addition to the VAI that opened last year. MSU leases the lab space for its researchers.

“Recruiting? We’re just getting started,” she said.

“I’m responsible for the administrative operations of the campus, and also collaborating with our finance offices and our CFO and our associate dean for research and the other associate deans in the academic areas, to ensure that everything is up and running and runs smoothly, and that we actually further certain initiatives in Grand Rapids,” said Martino. “I deal with, basically, making things work.”

Martino and Jeffrey Dwyer, associate dean for research and community engagement, have focused much attention on finding researchers to fill the niches in Grand Rapids. Martino said she expects more researchers to say yes to Grand Rapids by the end of the year, partly by leveraging the contacts she has built during her career in medical school and research administration.

“One of the most important (initiatives) here is to build the research, the research operation and infrastructure,” Martino said. “All of those organizations have committed resources, along with Michigan State University, to recruit scientists and to really build world-class research. Essentially, that will not only build the research operation in and of itself, but will further translational research,” so those findings may benefit patients.

To bolster efforts to move local research into bedside application, Martino said she plans to create training opportunities for West Michigan doctors who may not have much experience behind the bench.

“We want to be doing this as a community effort with all the players,” she said. “We will be taking those people in our hospitals, the clinicians who do have exposure to (research), and hopefully training them as instructors to make sure that our physicians around town are involved in research.

“We would love to have the clinicians get excited about research and participate, and give them the tools they need to be successful in getting involved with research projects.”

The push for interdisciplinary health education from GVSU Vice Provost Jean Nagelkerk is also important for the medical school, Martino added. The interdisciplinary approach incorporates students in as many health professions — medical students, nursing students, therapy students, etc. — as possible in educational experiences that better mirror the real world of health care.

“It’s not only very important for us to get our medical students involved. For us, that’s primary.”

Born and raised on Long Island’s South Shore close to the city, Martino grew up with two younger sisters and a younger brother. They are the offspring of Mario Martino, 90, a retired buyer for a grocery chain and Italian immigrant, and his wife, Rosemary, 82, a retired legal assistant.

“There were four of us in five and a half years. We are very close-knit,” said Martino, 51, who goes back to New York at least six times a year and still owns a condominium in Westchester County’s Ossining.

“None of the siblings have children, and only one is now married. We’ve very close to each other, and I go home for all the holidays. We’re always together. We’re like friends,” she said. “My family is amazing. I miss my family — that’s the hardest part. I’m 100 percent Italian.”

Accepted into Georgetown University, Martino ended up staying close to home for college at Aldelphi University, where she received a scholarship. Expecting at first to study languages, she found herself drawn to science and graduated with a degree in biology.

“I like the medical sciences. I thought I wanted to be a physician, but then I decided I didn’t want to do that. I like the business end of things, as well, so it was a good way to marry those interests. I also really like being involved in academic institutions. I like the contact with the types of people and mission.”

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, Martino worked as a researcher at Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons for four years. She then worked for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, followed by the stint in Boston overseeing clinical trials for a pharmaceutical start-up. After a year in Boston, Martino returned to Columbia as the administrative director for a National Institutes of Health-funded clinical research group.

The job was a big step up, and she competed for it with a wide field of candidates with MBA degrees. The offer was contingent on Martino pursuing an MBA, which she happily did, through Columbia’s executive MBA program. “The MBA was an amazing part of my career. That was incredibly important,” she said.

After five years, she decided to seek new challenges.

“I wound up with five different offers, one to suit every piece of my background,” she said. “One of them was at New York Medical College, as associate dean for academic administration.” NYMC is a private university in Westchester County with a medical school and two other health sciences divisions.

“That turned out to be one of the best moves of my life. I mean, that was a fabulous job. I did finance and operations and worked with both the basic and the clinical science departments.

“At one point along the line, they were starting a research development initiative where they really wanted to focus on attracting science groups of high caliber. They tabbed me and said, ‘We’d like you to take on this responsibility.’ So then I was senior associate dean for academic administration and research development.”

She spent 13 years at NYMC. She left Manhattan after 14 years of city life and bought a condo in Westchester County.

Martino was in the hospital in March 2007, laid up with a broken leg, when she received a message from a head-hunter for a university in the Midwest.

“I was actually in a hospital room. I had broken my leg skiing up at Whistler,” Martino recalled. “I picked up my messages at home, and one of them was from this woman (who asked), ‘Are you re-locatable?’ I said no, I loved my job. And I said where, and she said Michigan. And I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no.’”

Initially, Martino was recruited for the executive dean’s job at the medical school’s East Lansing campus. “But the focus there was more on building the clinical enterprise,” she said. Plus she said, she found mid-Michigan to be a little sleepy for her taste. She wasn’t interested.

Then MSU-CMH Dean Marsha D. Rappley uncovered some funding that allowed her to add Martino to the roster in Grand Rapids.

“I came to visit Grand Rapids, and there was an excitement about the town and about what was being built here, about the newness, about building this Medical Mile, about $1 billion worth of new construction and new hospitals.”

Still, it was a tough decision. Martino worried about leaving her elderly parents and living so far from her beloved siblings. But, as her own mother pointed out, she was enthusiastic about Grand Rapids from her first visits.

What sealed the deal? Martino’s emotional response to discovering paintings from Hudson Valley artists on display in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

“The quality of life is really amazing,” Martino said. “We are the second most philanthropic community in the United States. People here put their money where their mouth is, and they put it back into the community. And that’s a really powerful thing.”

It’s all a matter of perspective, like the distortion a camera lens can bring to size and shape.

“I’ve connected with many women in town, partly because I’ve been put out there, but also because you meet one person, they connect you with somebody else. The ability here — because it’s such a small town — to find people, it’s really easy.

“There are some things I think that need to be changed,” Martino acknowledged. “But you look online and you say, ‘Oh, Elton John’s coming to Van Andel Arena, maybe I can get tickets. Oh, I’m sitting in an arena with only 14,000 people, and I’m watching Elton John.’ Duh. If I was at Madison Square Garden watching, maybe I was part of 50,000 people.

“I can drive downtown in 15 minutes, park my car for maybe, at most, $15 — in New York City, it was like $40 — go see a show, eat in a good restaurant, and be home in 15 minutes. Hello! You know?”

Martino said she’s eager to try Michigan skiing and to learn golf on the course in her Cascade Township neighborhood.

“And look, I didn’t sell my house (in New York) … I love it there,” she added. “But I never knew about anything here. I don’t think I ever believed anything like this could exist.”

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