The University Record, April 16, 2001

Institute will transform research, undergraduate education

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the Life Sciences Institute Kickoff Celebration.

By Mary Jo Frank
Office the of Vice President for Communications

Life Sciences Institute Co-director Jack E. Dixon describes his two-year research stint at the University of California, Los Angeles, during his undergraduate days as “the single most important factor in my pursuing a career in science.”

Speaking at the Institute kickoff ceremony April 11 in Rackham Auditorium, Dixon, the Minor J. Coon Professor of Biological Chemistry, said, “It gave me the tools, know-how and confidence that I needed to succeed in science. This experience had a lasting effect on me, and I anticipate that our efforts in the Life Sciences Institute will affect University of Michigan students in a similar way.”

Just as Dixon’s early research experience shaped his career, the Institute has the potential to transform basic research and treatment of disease, undergraduate education, and the U-M campus as a whole, noted Institute Co-director Scott D. Emr, President Lee C. Bollinger and undergraduate students who also spoke at the ceremony.

The Institute’s initial research theme will be “Cell Signaling in Biology and Human Disease,” explained Emr, whose own path-breaking research focuses on the biochemical reactions all cells need to survive.

Emr outlined three goals for the Institute:

  • Establish an interdisciplinary research program that will develop and apply new technologies to solve basic problems in biology and medicine.

  • Establish core technology centers that can be used to study the human genome and understand the structure and function of each of the proteins these genes produce.

  • Enhance the educational environment at the U-M by providing opportunities for undergraduate, graduate and professional students to train in top-notch research laboratories using cutting-edge technologies.

    Emr, professor of cellular and molecular medicine in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will join the Life Sciences Institute in July 2002.

    Bollinger explained that the Regents appointed co-directors for the Institute because the University needs active, distinguished scientists who are engaged in their own research to lead the Institute and recruit other outstanding scientists. By sharing administrative duties, the co-directors will have time to continue their scientific work.

    Dixon, who officially assumes his new administrative duties in July, served both on the Life Sciences Commission and as chair of the faculty advisory committee for the Life Sciences Initiative. The Initiative is a campuswide effort launched in 1999 to expand learning in the rapidly advancing fields of genomics, chemical and structural biology, cognitive neuroscience, and bioinformatics.

    Bollinger thanked the many people and institutions who have helped move the Life Sciences Institute from an idea to reality, including members of the Life Sciences Commission; deans of LS&A, the College of Engineering and the Medical School; executive officers; and the Regents, who, Bollinger said, “took a risk to invest in this venture.”

    He also praised architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown of the Philadelphia architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates for identifying the Palmer Drive site as the best location for the Life Sciences Institute. “No one had any idea how to use that declivity—what academics call a hole,” Bollinger said, until Venturi, Scott Brown proposed the site as a way to physically and intellectually link the Central and Medical campuses. Bollinger described the materials being used for the Institute building as “stunning” and said that the rhythms of the exterior will reflect the complexity of the research being done inside.

    As an institution, Bollinger said, it is critical that “we have the agility of mind and sense of joy” to jump into endeavors such as this. The investment in the Institute speaks to the University’s willingness to take risks and its commitment to be nothing less than the very best. It also represents the University’s care and concern for undergraduates, he said.

    “The Institute, although a building, is really about people,” Dixon agreed. “It is about undergraduates who will gain their first experience working in a research laboratory. It is about graduate students who will receive their Ph.D.s and learn the skills that can make them productive at other academic or industrial locations. It is also about training postdoctoral fellows as well as having space to train our own faculty and allowing them to pursue a sabbatical leave and remain in Ann Arbor. We also will have sufficient space for visitors and people doing sabbatical leaves outside our own institution,” Dixon added.

    Regent Rebecca McGowan applauds the work of Ypsilanti High School students, who created murals to adorn the Life Sciences Institute construction site. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
    A new building adjacent to the Life Sciences Institute Building—the Commons Building—will have an auditorium, meeting rooms and a food court, and will be a place for students and faculty to gather.

    “As a biochemist, I would call this building our ‘blender,’ where ideas will be exchanged, new projects dreamed up and everyday scientific problems discussed and solved,” explained Dixon, who concluded his presentation with a film of a virtual tour of the Palmer Drive site.

    Meredith Miller, a sophomore honors student in chemistry and biochemistry, and Nakia Williams, a senior majoring in microbiology, talked about how they have grown through their research experiences with faculty mentors. Both have participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.

    “As we make our way through the maize and blue, many of us are blessed with the opportunity to perform research with the leading principal investigators in the country,” Williams said. “Research gives us the opportunity to perform techniques that we are taught in lecture or read about in books. From running focus groups to designing components of satellites to helping to discover the gene sequences of cancer, we are given a firsthand chance to make significant contributions to emerging research.”

    The undergraduate component of the U-M’s investment in the life sciences also was emphasized at a smaller luncheon following the ceremony. Pamela Raymond, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs, and professor of cell and developmental biology, talked about the Science Instruction Center, an L-shaped building primarily dedicated to undergraduate students, which will be built adjacent to the Institute.

    “The Center will pay special attention to programs that explore the intersection of science and technology with humanities and social sciences, such as the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program, which will likely be housed there,” Raymond said. It will be a place to foster a sense of community and promote the involvement of underrepresented minorities and women in science and technology, she explained. Raymond also talked about a new undergraduate life sciences curriculum that will expose students to the new knowledge and concepts being developed in the life sciences.

    The vision for the educational component of the Life Sciences Initiative “is to create a direct educational pipeline that will link our undergraduate students with the latest and most important research developments in biomedical sciences and their application to treatment of human disease,” Raymond added.

    Also speaking at the luncheon, Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs, talked about the variety of efforts falling under the Life Sciences Initiative umbrella—ranging from the Institute to the planned Biomedical Research Building to the recently formed Life Sciences Orchestra. He discussed the impact the Life Sciences Initiative and the state of Michigan’s Life Sciences Corridor are likely to have on health care and technology transfer, noting how unusual it is for a state to create something like the corridor—a $1 billion statewide project to invest in and promote life sciences research, advances in health care and business development. Organized by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the corridor includes the U-M, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids.

    Bollinger talked at the Rackham ceremony about the need for the U-M to continue to look for ways to collaborate with other state institutions. “We get better as Michigan State University and Wayne State University get better,” he said.

    At the conclusion of the morning ceremony, Ypsilanti High School art teacher Robin Evans presented 35 murals to the University. The murals, featuring butterflies, giraffes, underwater scenes, vibrant flowers, the double helix of DNA and other images related to the life sciences, were painted by 21 students in Evans’ art classes.

    Accepting the artwork on behalf of the University, Regent Olivia Maynard expressed appreciation for “these wonderful murals that symbolize the connections between the creativity of the Ypsilanti students, students everywhere and the life sciences.” The murals will be mounted on the construction fence around the Institute, from the Power Center for the Performing Arts to the North University Building.

    Outside Rackham, about 20 protesters, many wearing white lab coats, distributed literature and carried picket signs reading “Science for Sale.” Ricardo Carvajal, a graduate student in biology, said he is among those concerned about the direction the University is taking in the life sciences, including closer connections between corporations and U-M laboratories that could bias the way research is conducted and reported.

    Bollinger and Dixon noted that one of the unique components of the Life Sciences Initiative is its Life Sciences, Values and Society Program (LSVSP), directed by Richard O. Lempert, the Francis A. Allen Collegiate Professor of Law and professor of sociology. The LSVSP has launched a series of ambitious programs to examine the ethical and social impact of advances being made in the life sciences.

    As part of the kickoff celebration, the LSVSP and Museum of Art organized a panel discussion in the afternoon about “Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution,” an exhibition at the Museum that explores the visual, social and ethical dimensions of the ongoing revolution in genetic knowledge and power. “Paradise Now” is on display through May 27.

    Read about the panel in next week’s Record.