As the long-time executive director of the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine (IIAM) in Edison, NJ, Gina Dunne Smith remains amazed by medical innovations that improve organ donation and transplantation. “I am awestruck by what’s happening out there,” she says. “Innovation is part of our DNA within this organization and everything that we do and everything that we support is because somebody has an innovative idea that they want to bring to fruition. And we get to be a part of making that happen. They are the geniuses behind it and we are simply the facilitators of a donor gift.”
With 33 years in the industry and 28 at the helm of IIAM, an organization that provides non-transplantable human organs and tissues for medical research, Dunne Smith remains passionate about the life-saving mission of the organ donation and transplantation community—and she’s very well-connected. “One of the advantages of the longevity within the community is that I’ve watched most of the story happen within the entire donation community,” she says. “I’ve watched the people grow up. I’ve watched the ideas come to life.” She’s served on the boards of numerous industry organizations and associations, including the North American Transplant Coordinators Organization (NATCO), the American Association of Tissue Banks, and the American Society of Transplantation (AST) Advisory Committee.
This year she is chairing The Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance’s National Innovation Leadership Council. The Council consists of 12 professional community leaders who explore and encourage the adoption of innovative ideas within the organ donation and transplantation community to save and heal more lives. “We have a great ensemble that makes up the Innovation Council and everybody involved is contributing thought-provoking ideas,” says Dunne Smith, who ran through a list of innovations being explored including those to facilitate the transport of donated organs, ways to reduce organ rejection, and novel perfusion devices to extend the amount of time an organ can remain viable outside of the body.
“Innovation is something that I’m very familiar with. I know the folks out there that are doing it; we see it every at IIAM when we place an organ with one of our researchers,” she says. “It is surreal what you can do now to help somebody. It all begins with a donor where that family’s desire is to leave a lasting legacy and to help somebody. And, through research and innovation, we’re helping the donor community and the research community come together to advance transplantation technology.”
As the sixth of six children in eight years in her family, she says she learned early on that she had to speak up if she wanted to be heard; she learned to be comfortable being bold. She credited that lesson with sparking her involvement the donation community. “Going back to being that kid, you’ve got to speak up or you get lost. There are times where I feel like that if I can have a voice in an organization, it’s kind of like joining a family again and speaking up where you feel like you want to be heard.”
Her entry into organ donation and transplantation came about just as she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1988 when her internship professor referred her for a position at the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). “I’m so humbled that somehow I was put on this path and that I was allowed to have the small window into a very personal, intimate moment with donor families. You are really part of that process to see something good come from something really tragic. And it’s rare when somebody knows that in the line of work that they do, that you are leaving a thumbprint.”
In her role as a senior organ placement specialist at UNOS, she worked with every organ procurement organization (OPO) to facilitate organ donation placements around the country. She soon realized there was an opportunity to work with OPOs to promote the use of non-transplantable organs for medical research. In 1993, she joined IIAM as a professional relations manager and now leads a team of 25 professionals. IIAM is part of MTF Biologics, which employs just over 1,200.
An avid and knowledgeable flower gardener with seven distinct gardens on her property, she says her passion for innovation carries over in her gardening. “I try new things all the time,” says Dunne Smith. “I have killed everything once. And that is my love of saying, ‘OK, try and try again until you make it work. And if you can’t, then at least you know that you went down swinging.”
Dunne Smith lives with her husband, Kim, their two daughters, and their two rescue dogs, Ollie and Cooper, in Chester County, PA.