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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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