Courtney Law nurtures young UW-GU health partnership

Thursday, April 12, 2018

(as reported in the Spokane Journal of Business by LeAnn Bjerken)

Although she is already more than two years into her position as the director of the University of Washington School of Medicine-Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership, Courtney Law says she’s really just getting started.

“I’ve always enjoyed being a part of something that’s new and growing,” says Law. “There’s a lot of support for this partnership, and many opportunities for us to grow into a resource for both our students, and the community as a whole.”

Formed in 2016, the Regional Health Partnership is an agreement between Gonzaga and UW School of Medicine that’s meant to advance health-related research, entrepreneurship, and interdisciplinary health sciences teaching in Spokane.

The agreement makes Gonzaga a partner in the UW’s regional, community-based medical education program, WWAMI (an acronym for the states it serves: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.)

Prior to the agreement, UW had partnered with Washington State University for the WWAMI program, but that partnership dissolved after WSU announced intentions to launch its own medical school here.

Gonzaga hired Law as director of the partnership in August of 2016, and since then she’s been working with leadership from both institutions, as well as the Spokane Community Advisory Board, to guide its development.

Law says the partnership is unusual in that Gonzaga is a private institution, whereas most schools that are part of such agreements are public institutions, like UW.

“There have been some minor issues with logistics, but overall the partnership works really well, mostly because our two institutions have such similar missions,” says Law. “We’re all in this for the greater good.”

As director of the partnership, Law says she spends much of her time meeting with people from both Gonzaga and UW to plan and discuss upcoming initiatives that will help in the delivery of medical education on campus.

“One of my favorite parts of this job is meeting with people and students, sharing ideas for growing the partnership,” she says. “We talk about new education and research opportunities, as well as community outreach projects.”

In fall 2016, the partnership welcomed UW’s largest entering WWAMI class to dedicated space in the 26,265-square foot Schoenberg building, located on the west side of the Gonzaga campus.

It’s here, Law says, that Gonzaga faculty recruits, teaches, and mentors medical students together with University of Washington faculty, using the UW’s new medical curriculum.

She says current programs housed within the building include the UW medical students and physician-assistant students.

Law says the first UW medical school class to begin medical school courses at Gonzaga’s campus, just transitioned to the clinical stage of their education in December.

“All 60 students who began with us are successfully moving forward to clinical training spots in Spokane, Eastern Washington, Washington state, and throughout the WWAMI region,” she says.

Law says the fall 2017 medical school class consists of 60 students, half male and half female. She says 21 are UW students, six are Gonzaga students, and the remaining students attend other nearby universities.

“In total, we now have 120 medical students, and 57 (physician assistant) students, divided into two classes,” she says. “For the incoming class of 2018, there was so much interest in the UWSOM, in Spokane, an additional interview day was added to accommodate the requests.”

Originally from New Jersey, Law, 36, spent most of her life in North Carolina, where she completed her doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, followed by postdoctoral studies at the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise, in Durham, N.C.

Law first moved to Washington state five years ago, when her husband Anthony became a UW surgical resident.

“We were very excited to move to the Pacific Northwest because neither of us had lived in this area and this was a new adventure for us,” she says. “It was high on our list of potential places to live, because of what the state had to offer both socially and career-wise and we’re fortunate to have moved here.”

Prior to becoming director of the Regional Health Partnership, Law served two years as the associate director of entrepreneurship and innovation with Seattle-based nonprofit, Life Science Washington.

Life Science Washington’s mission is to bring together research institutions, investors and innovators to grow the state’s life science economy.

“In that position I helped Life Science Washington to pilot an entrepreneur program called the Washington Innovation Network,” she says. “It was a good way for me to meet and connect with inventors in the life sciences field and learn more about research opportunities happening all over the state.”

She says her current position allows her to combine her background in life science research with her love of developing new programs and projects.

“I saw this as a great opportunity to marry those interests, so I just had to apply,” she says.

Law says she did encounter some challenges in taking on the position--mainly, becoming familiar with how a university operates.

“There was a bit of a learning curve, because I’d never been part of the administrative side of things before,” she says. “It took a while to get up to speed on some things, but I had an excellent team to help me.”

In her first year as director, Law says, she and her colleagues were mainly focused on ensuring the students within the partnership were receiving the highest quality medical education experience possible.

“We really wanted to focus on the students first,” she says. “Now as we grow, we’ve begun to explore more of the opportunities this partnership has to offer, including its potential benefit to the community.”

In addition to her position as director, Law also participates as a member of various committees including the Providence Community Board of Directors, and Greater Spokane Incorporated’s Vision 2030 Health Industry Development Group.

“A lot of our faculty are also part of community organizations,” she says. “Being involved helps us to stay informed about what’s going on in our area and more aware of collaborative opportunities.”

As part of its new focus on community outreach, Law says this year the partnership created the Next Generation Medicine Lecture Series.

“We survey people in the community, and find out what medical topics they’d like to learn more about, and then we invite University of Washington experts to speak on those topics,” she says. “The first lecture took place this past September and was very well attended.” 

Law says all lecture events are free and open to the public. The next one will take place on April 19, and will feature the University of Washington’s chief of pain medicine, Dr. David J Tauben, who will discuss the opioid epidemic.

Looking ahead, Law says she has three main goals for the partnership. These include: strengthening educational ties between the two schools, growing and building research and educational opportunities for students, and developing plans for a new facility to support the partnership.

“One of our biggest goals is to strengthen the connections between our two schools and become one community on campus,” she says. “We’re also still working to develop more joint research and educational opportunities.”

As part of the effort to create more joint learning opportunities, Law says she’s currently working on a new summer pilot program that would enable rising junior and senior students at Gonzaga to spend a summer in Seattle, studying alongside UW researchers.

She says the research opportunities would use the partnership to match students majoring in human physiology, nursing, engineering, biology, biochemistry, and chemistry, with UW researchers studying topics relating to their major or interests.

“Each year we ask GU and UW students to conduct basic science and community-based research projects, and present on them at a poster session in the fall,” she says. “This will be the first year these summer opportunities are being offered, and we’re hoping to include those student presentations at the fall poster session as well.”

With the Schoenberg building currently at capacity, Law says there also has been some discussion about creating a new facility on the Gonzaga campus to house the growing partnership.

“There has been some discussion about building a larger facility, but so far these are still very early conversations,” she says. “I like to think that project will evolve similarly to how the partnership itself has, through the shared ideas and supportive efforts of our communities.”