Fwd: Bio-X and Interdisciplinary Research

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    School Crossings
    Bio-X and Interdisciplinary Research

    by Fran Smith
    Posted June 8, 2001 Issue 104



    Interdisciplinary programs are not new. However, Bio-X and similar
    ventures across the United States represent a new paradigm. They reflect
    a growing recognition that cutting-edge research in the post-genomic age
    requires expertise from more than one field, and a fundamental ambition
    to change not only the face of biomedicine, but also academia.

    On a traditional university campus, it would be hard to imagine a cancer
    biologist and a chemical engineer teaming up to do vaccine research. Or a
    civil engineer collaborating with a geologist to study the effects of
    coral reefs on world climate change. Or medical school professors
    teaching medicine to biology graduate students. But these projects and
    more than a dozen others are under way at Stanford University, thanks to
    an ambitious, well-funded interdisciplinary initiative called Bio-X.

    The program reflects a growing recognition that cutting-edge research in
    the post-genomic age requires expertise from more than one field,
    including many that have not worked together previously. The official
    goal of Bio-X is to promote bioscience research and education across
    disciplines. But unofficially, Bio-X and similar ventures across the
    United States have even more profound ambitions - to change not only the
    face of biomedicine but also academia.

    "The world is fully integrated," said Richard Zare, Bio-X cofounder and
    Stanford chemistry professor. "Information is being received in an
    integrated form. And then the questions go to people at universities who
    disintegrate them into different departments. It's a structure that has
    been built in by now hundreds of years of successful operation."

    Interdisciplinary programs, of course, are not new; campuses everywhere
    have centers devoted to studying scientific, social, and intellectual
    problems across departmental boundaries. Nor was Stanford the first to
    embrace bold cross-fertilization in bioscience. "Interdisciplinary" has
    become the buzzword of academic science and, apparently, a selling point
    in faculty recruitment and retention. Bio-X was conceived when two
    prominent Stanford professors - Nobel laureate and physicist Steve Chu
    and biochemist James Spudich - were being wooed to develop similar
    initiatives at other universities.

    Top schools are now competing to build not only the best programs but
    also the fanciest monuments to interdisciplinary work. These efforts have
    resulted in vast research centers with atriums, removable walls,
    expansive meeting rooms, and even cafeterias for serendipitous encounters.

    "Despite the advances of the Internet and connectivity, there's something
    magic about meeting people in the hall and talking to them," said Harvey
    Cohen, Stanford professor of pediatrics and Bio-X leader.

    The University of Chicago plans to break ground later this year on a $180
    million, 420,000-square-foot building - the largest, most expensive in
    the school's history. The University of California at Berkeley has
    launched a half-billion-dollar Health Sciences Initiative, which will
    involve $300 million in new facilities and as many as 400 researchers
    from disparate disciplines, including biology, mathematics, public
    health, engineering, and psychology. Harvard and Princeton, as well, have
    major interdisciplinary ventures and construction plans. Stanford is
    building the 225,000-square-foot James H. Clark Center to house Bio-X
    between the computer science and chemistry buildings and the medical

    Each one of these universities claims its initiative is the one to beat.
    Stanford asserts two key advantages: the participation of three strong
    schools Humanities and Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine - on a
    single campus; and a culture that values interdisciplinary research.
    Stanford's program also has substantial funding.

    Bio-X was conceived in 1998 by an eclectic group of professors, including
    Spudich and Chu (the "X" was meant to signify the unknown). In late 1999,
    the program received $150 million, at that time the largest single gift
    in Stanford history, from Jim Clark, a former Stanford engineering
    professor who made his fortune as founder of Silicon Graphics and
    Netscape. In announcing the donation, Clark said that crossing
    traditional boundaries had greatly contributed to his success. Bio-X
    later received an additional $60 million from an anonymous donor.

    To bring life to Bio-X even before the Clark Center is complete, the
    program has awarded grants. In May 2000, the Bio-X Core Facilities
    Committee - one of six committees made up of 42 faculty and staff -
    awarded $7 million to 17 projects seeking to build or upgrade bioresearch
    labs on campus. Among the new facilities are the Tissue Bank, a central
    lab for obtaining, storing, and experimenting on animal and human tissue;
    and the Cognitive Neuroscience Facility, a $1 million center for
    analyzing brain function and thought using computational neuroimaging,
    eye-tracking equipment, and other new technologies.

    In October 2000, the Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program Committee,
    having received 90 applications, awarded approximately $3 million in seed
    grants to 19 research and educational projects. Money went to some novel
    proposals and unlikely teams. James Swartz, a professor of chemical
    engineering, and Ronald Levy, a cancer biologist, will work on developing
    a method to rapidly synthesize patient-specific vaccines to treat B cell
    lymphoma. The goal: a cost-effective vaccine that can be produced in a
    week. Jeffrey Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering,
    and Robert Dunbar, a professor of geological and environmental sciences,
    are studying a coral reef system in the Red Sea to assess its effect on
    the total carbon balance, and, by extension, global warming. Another
    grant went to a team examining the production of organic material in reef

    Two medical school faculty members, Jane Parnes and Elizabeth Mellins,
    received funds to develop an introductory course in medicine for
    biomedical graduate students. Faculty from the Stanford Learning Lab and
    the School of Education are participating in the course, which began this

    "The financial incentive is enough to motivate people to think beyond the
    confines of their own neighbors when planning research and/or educational
    programs," said Parnes, a professor of immunology and rheumatology.

    Of course, doling out grants - not to mention erecting massive complexes
    - always sparks controversy on campuses. One doesn't hear much
    philosophical objection to the interdisciplinary push. But at Stanford
    and everywhere else, there is tension over the details. "If you think
    it's hard to get cooperation between departments, understand that we're
    talking about cooperation between different schools," Zare said.

    Who gets how much space and money? What happens to departments whose
    stars move their labs down the street? Is the new space counted as part
    of the department or, in other words, is the department growing or

    At Chicago, great minds have devoted many hours to puzzling over matters
    of prestige and power. "Seems like we've been through a million of them,"
    said Donald Levy, a chemistry professor involved in the design and
    planning of the giant new interdisplinary research building. Even the
    size of offices became a huge, cross-cultural issue - chemists wanted one
    thing, biologists another. "I'm told that the physical sciences
    traditionally have bigger offices than the biological sciences," Levy
    said. "You can't have a building with two different size offices. We met
    somewhere in the middle."

    More significantly, the new collaborative zeal could force a
    reexamination of promotion and tenure. At Stanford Medical School, for
    example, faculty members up for tenure traditionally have had to
    demonstrate that their published work was written independently of
    collaborators and mentors. "It's always been, 'What have you done?' as
    opposed to 'What have you contributed to?'" said Cohen. If the school
    wants to encourage innovative collaboration over the creation of
    ever-more specialized fiefdoms, "it does require thinking a little
    differently about how we reward achievement," according to Cohen.

    Leaders of Bio-X know they're stepping on sacred ground here, and they're
    treading softly. They're quick to say they are not out to kill
    departments. "You can't have a strong interdisciplinary program without
    building it on strong disciplines," Zare said. "So the first corollary is
    that departments are here to stay." His second corollary:
    interdisciplinary programs must be "structured as a win-win. People must
    perceive these as not robbing the departments."

    Bio-X is negotiating with the three participating schools to determine
    what incentives would lead each to view interdisciplinary collaboration
    as a gain - not a loss - in resources, connections, money, and influence.

    But political delicacies aside, Bio-X and its counterparts are striving
    to be more than grant programs, new buildings, or the latest trendy
    center on their campus. And those ambitions pose a challenge to the
    traditions and orthodoxies of academia.

    "It's a new paradigm," Zare said. "It's a completely new way for faculty
    to interact and do research."

    Fran Smith is a freelance writer and editor.

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