“Now that I am running a department with 160 people [currently as professor and chair of the Department of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany],” notes Dr. Stucki, “there is no day that I do not refer to some of the concepts and ideas that Matt Liang taught me. We have now translated these concepts into our culture here, so a lot of people have benefited from that mentoring.”
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Explore This IssueOctober 2009
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Another mentee, W. Neal Roberts, Jr., MD, currently the Charles W. Thomas Professor of Medicine and Rheumatology, at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College in Richmond, says of Dr. Liang “The door to his office was literally always open. At the time I worked with him (1982–1984), he said that he couldn’t get much thinking done, except when he was in the air, traveling. But it didn’t damage him, because he was always working at some level just about everywhere he was.
“What I learned about research from Matt is that if you try to tackle the impossible thing, you won’t have as much competition—and that a successful intervention can be its own validation,” continues Dr. Roberts. He is currently engaged in a project to use his medical center’s computer system to better serve young black women with lupus who suffer from fragmented care. When he invited some Wisconsin colleagues to help tackle the project, they replied, “We can’t do it; lupus is too complex.” But, he says, “That’s the kind of thing that would just attract Matt like a shark!”
Dr. Liang talked about how he works: “When I get really engaged, I can almost ‘see and feel’ the steps needed to find a solution—and then I have to find the voice to bring others along.” He offers the story told by the 6th-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu to illustrate the challenge of those, like himself, who want to close the gap between what we know and what we do in translational research:
A philosopher is contemplating a problem and notices that the other end of his house is burning. There is a pond beside it and a bucket at the end of the building. The philosopher reasons that the bucket could be filled with water and if done over and over again could be used to extinguish the fire. Having solved the problem in principle, he goes back to his ruminations.
“Matt Liang’s work has been focused on a wide variety of topics and has been very novel,” reflects his colleague John Esdaile, MD, scientific director of the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “He sees a major scientific or clinical gap, fixes it, and leaves other people to pursue certain elements while he has found some other large gap and is already thinking about what he’s going to do for that. No one has done this as well, or on so many different topics, as Matt has.”