The University Record, June 5, 2000

President updates community on life sciences activities

Editor’s Note: The full text of the letter is on the Web at www.umich.edu/~urel/LS. Hard copies are available by sending a request to LSIupdate@umich.edu.

By Jane R. Elgass

Accomplishments-to-date and ongoing activities related to the University’s Life Sciences Initiative were detailed in a letter from President Lee C. Bollinger that has been sent to members of the University community.

“Advances in the life sciences,” he said, “are raising new questions about what it is to be human, how best to lead a human or humane existence, what it is to be a living organism on this planet, and other crucial questions of human values that will reverberate throughout the social sciences, the humanities, the arts and medicine. We also can expect transformations in the practice of health care, the nature of scientific research and significant segments of the economy, technology and education.

“The revolution in the life sciences,” he noted, “presents us with an educational imperative to which we must respond in three ways.”

  • Current and future scientists and healthcare practitioners must be equipped to carry forward the science, engineering and health care of the future.

  • Students must be prepared for careers in the biological and health care fields.

  • All students will need knowledge that enables them to live in a world where moral, social, political and practical questions related to biology will arise more frequently.

    In the letter, Bollinger detailed the many elements of the Initiative, a broad endeavor that includes programs, new interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses, concentrations and research opportunities, as well as a Life Sciences Institute.

    “While the Institute will be tightly connected to units across the University, we intend to pursue—and are pursuing—the development of life sciences and related activities beyond the bounds of the Institute,” Bollinger noted.

    “The precise intellectual foci of the Institute remain to be determined and will be shaped by the new director in consultation with others. Over time, however, this Initiative will support the development of many areas.

    “We cannot do everything at once,” he said, “and the Initiative will be played out over many years. But the guiding vision—the vision of understanding the complexity of life, as articulated by the Life Sciences Commission—is very broad indeed. It is a vision for connecting scholarship across the University in new ways. It is the breadth of this vision, I believe, that gives the Michigan Initiative a unique flavor and profoundly exciting possibilities.

    “We cannot, of course, be sure that our scientific and intellectual pursuits will yield dramatic new knowledge of life. However, much has already been discovered (e.g., the map of the human genome is nearing completion), and much powerful instrumentation has been developed. First-rate, innovative faculty are committed to the exploration of human biology and human values through their disciplines. The prospects for success seem to be realistically bright.”

    Program in the Life Sciences, Values and Society

    The University has committed $500,000 to support the Program in the Life Sciences, Values and Society in the coming year. Led by Richard Lempert, professor of law and of sociology, the program is designed to bring together scientists, scholars and graduate students from a range of disciplines for the exchange of knowledge and ideas through research and conferences, cooperative joint studies, joint teaching, and graduate student supervision and research.

    Two programs examining the humanistic and bioethical aspects of the life sciences have been scheduled:

  • On Oct. 11, Harold E. Varmus, past director of the National Institutes of Health and current president and CEO of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, will deliver a talk on the life sciences, values and society that will promote reflection on related ethical and social issues.

  • In December, the University will host a conference on “Death and Dying in America,” organized by visiting Yale University law Prof. Bo Burt.

    Undergraduate Curriculum

    The president and Provost Nancy Cantor have committed $1 million a year for three years to develop new interdisciplinary courses for undergraduate and graduate students. The new courses will be team-taught by faculty from several schools, including engineering, public health, medicine, natural resources and environment and LS&A.

    Life Sciences Institute

    The search for an Institute director is under way in a highly competitive environment, as a number of other institutions have launched similar initiatives.

    “The director will form the Institute,” Bollinger noted in the letter, “in collaboration and consultation with others, refine research objectives, head the search for new faculty to be jointly appointed in academic departments, lead the Institute in its educational and outreach activities, and develop partnerships with other units on campus, with industry and with other universities.

    “I want to emphasize that I expect that, under the guidance of the director, the Institute will play a unifying as well as a catalytic role for the life sciences across the University,” the president said. “While it will generate new research by new faculty, the Institute also will create opportunities for many existing faculty members to participate through fellowships and sabbaticals. Indeed,” he added, “I expect the Institute to be an integral part of the educational and intellectual fabric of the University.”

    Construction of the Institute building, to be located southwest of the Washtenaw-Huron curve on Palmer Drive, is expected to begin in winter 2000–2001. Schematic plans for the six-story state-of-the-art facility were approved by the Regents in April.

    The area also will see the construction of a Commons Building along Washtenaw and a 1,100-space parking structure.

    Biological Sciences Scholars Program, Faculty Recruiting

    An aggressive effort to recruit outstanding scientists in key areas of biological science across multiple units, supported by an investment of up to $2.5 million per year by the Health System, has resulted in the appointment of nine scholars through the Biological Sciences Scholars Program.

    In addition, the Office of the Provost, LS&A and the Medical School have launched searches for three new faculty, to be jointly appointed in LS&A and the Medical School.

    Medical Research Laboratory Facility

    The Medical Research Laboratory Facility, to be located on the northwest side of the Huron-Washtenaw curve, will replace the Kresge Buildings and allow expansion of research related to the Initiative and clinical translation areas of the Health System.

    Bioinformatics

    Renovation of space for the bioinformatics facility, with funding by the Health System and external partners and sponsors, has begun in the Medical School, and the search for a director is under way. The new field helps researchers sort through the massive amounts of information about genes and proteins that is being produced by the Human Genome Project and other research initiatives. The interdisciplinary Bioinformatics Program, under the leadership of Michael Savageau, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, has launched a graduate education program and will support research studies.

    Functional MRI Research Facility

    A functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facility dedicated to research will be constructed on North Campus, the first MRI scanner on campus devoted solely to research. The fMRI will make it possible for researchers from a broad array of disciplines to image and study neural activity associated with basic cognitive and perceptual functions. The facility is co-directed by John Jonides, professor of psychology, and Douglas Noll, associate professor of biomedical engineering and of radiology.

    Biomedical Engineering

    Since their inception a few years ago, the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Center for Biomedical Engineering Research have brought focus to research in biomedical imaging, biomechanics, biomaterials, bioelectric systems and biotechnology. The department is planning a major expansion and is competing for funding from the Whitaker Foundation.

    State of Michigan Life Sciences Corridor

    The U-M, Wayne State University, Michigan State University and the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids are partners in the state’s Life Sciences Corridor, funded at a rate of about $50 million per year from the state’s share of the tobacco settlement. About $20 million is earmarked for basic research, $25 million for collaborative applied research and $5 million for commercialization of research results. For the first round of funding, the four partners will submit large-scale joint proposals for shared equipment, infrastructure, instrumentation and programs.