The University Record, May 24 , 1999

Deans cite benefits of Life Sciences Initiatives to their units

By Rebecca A. Doyle

The Regents heard from four deans last week on what the Life Sciences Initiative would mean not only to students, but to faculty and staff in their areas.

LS&A Interim Dean Pat Gurin told the Regents that some may wonder why a new institute is necessary if there already are pockets of research going on in the life sciences all over the University. Researchers who succeed in interdisciplinary projects, Gurin said, have had to overcome great obstacles to reach those goals.

LS&A, Gurin noted, will gain from both the Institute and the broader Life Sciences Initiatives in three ways.

“First, [through] what the resources of this institute will do to enhance the quality and national ranking of the science departments in the College; second, the great opportunity that the institute offers for the integration and mutual enrichment of applied and theoretical basic science; and third, the exciting opportunities that are there for undergraduate education.” Gurin also applauded the opportunities that would arise from the development of a proposal for a center to study evolution, ecology and behavior.

Gurin also noted that the “physical separation of the traditional disciplines, departments and professional schools is a powerful inhibitor to the daily discourse that is essential to the development of a common research experience, a common language and a facile exchange of ideas.”

Stephen Director, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, said that several areas in engineering already can claim close connections to life science research and have great potential for contributing to and gaining from the proposed Institute for the Study of Biological Complexity and Human Values.

“Life science is pervasive in the College of Engineering,” Director said. The most obvious indicator of the School‘s tie to the life sciences is “the Biomedical Engineering Department, which now has a large number of faculty associated with it.”

Director said that among the 50 life science-related projects in the College, less obviously connected to the life sciences are the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS) and the Solid State Electronics Laboratory. More traditional in their engineering bent, the two relate to life sciences in many areas, four of which Director outlined.

  • MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) projects have enabled scientists and technicians to reduce entire mechanical systems to miniscule sizes that can be implanted in the body to replace defective human systems—such as the cochlear implant that allows deaf patients to hear.

  • Researchers in CUOS developed laser eye surgery techniques through “somewhat of an accident,” Director said, while developing a femtosecond laser.

  • In a project with the School of Dentistry, engineers are working on tissue generation that Director says will allow growth of a patient‘s cells on an implantable and biodegradable matrix that may replace damaged tissue or organs.

  • Bio-imaging is used to guide molecular therapies by allowing physicians to use laser light converted to ultrasonic acoustic waves to pinpoint and target the exact site for delivery of medication.

    Medical School Dean Allen Lichter expressed the School‘s general support for the project, and told the Regents that biomedical science is changing and the new institute will allow the Medical School to be a part of that change.

    The Medical School‘s mission is three-fold, he said: It strives to train physicians, to create new knowledge and to provide state-of-the-art care for patients.

    “Tomorrow all three of these missions will be undergoing profound change due to a revolution that is taking place in science,” Lichter said. In the “post-genome world,” he said, scientists will be able to work knowing all of the human genomes. He related the strides scientists will be able to make to those that came about following the completion of Mendelev‘s grouping of elements in the periodic table.

    “For the first time, we will be able to look at the puzzle knowing that we have all of the pieces,” he said.

    Those universities and research institutes that bring together the right multidisciplinary group with the right resources at the right time will be the ones to discover and apply the organizational rules for biology.

    “In our opinion, the question is not ŒShould we do this?‘ The question is ŒHow can we not do this?‘ In fact,” Lichter said, “my feeling is if we did not bring this proposal forward, you would be wise to throw us out and bring in another group of leaders who would bring this to you, because this is that critical.”

    William Kotowicz, dean of the School of Dentistry, said the “School of Dentistry is excited about the Life Sciences Initiative and an eager participant.”

    Kotowicz noted that the School is one of the smaller schools on campus, and talked about the collaboration that would be possible under the new initiative. Because the School is so small, he said, a critical mass of researchers for collaborative efforts can only be reached by stretching out across disciplines. National Institutes of Health funding often is granted more to collaborative groups as well, he said.

    Kotowicz outlined some of the School‘s research in tissue regeneration, and linked much of the research that is done on craniofacial disease and reconstruction to other research units in biology, engineering and the Medical School.

    “Our faculty are not just dental faculty. In addition to having clinical training and a degree in dentistry, they are also trained in biochemistry, molecular biology, biophysiology, microbiology, biomaterials, engineering and epidemiology.”

    Sharing resources through an institute would make the U-M a very attractive place for dental faculty, Kotowicz noted.

    Following presentations from the four deans, Regent Rebecca McGowan asked Lichter how clinical faculty feel about funding for the Initiative. Of the proposed $200 million, $150 million will be provided by the Health System.

    “We have the choice—and we have said this as a faculty—to be a very good place with a lot of money in the bank or a great place with a little bit less money,” Lichter said. “And when put it up to a vote, our faculty would rather be a great place with a zero or two less on our bank book than a not-so-great place with the world‘s largest reserve.”

    Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Gilbert S. Omenn said that the Health System‘s strategic plan required looking out over the next three to five years at what will be needed and what may change in that time.

    He has been talking to people across the country about the Initiative and noted that it “is dramatic how well people know the predicament of the University of Michigan as a laggard in molecular biology and as a great institution in most fields.” He also noted the excitement on campus and testimonials of “some faculty who have testified that they have stayed in the face of attractive offers because they are excited about what‘s happening here.”

    Provost Nancy Cantor outlined for the Regents why the Institute is needed, building on Gurin‘s earlier statements, and talked about the academic and budgetary programming for it.

    “Groups of faculty have come forth with collaborative proposals at one time or another,” Cantor said, from many of the areas on campus that would be termed life sciences, which she found very reassuring.

    However, an Institute would serve as a convening ground, bringing people both physically and intellectually together around the exciting developments in life sciences.

    To succeed, Cantor said, the Institute must develop clear links and “permeable boundaries” within the University and with the external world, and develop the flexibility and fluidity to respond to new and unexpected challenges that would allow researchers to recognize and act when an opportunity presented itself, “to grab the right moment.”