The biological sciences today provide a “spectacularly fertile landscape for discovery,” and University of Michigan researchers must work across disciplines to identify and pursue those emerging opportunities, according to President Mark Schlissel.
To help make that happen, a new multidisciplinary faculty committee, commissioned by Schlissel and chaired by Vice Provost and Life Sciences Institute Director Roger Cone, began meeting this summer.
The 16-member Biosciences Initiative Coordinating Committee is charged with strengthening research and education in the biosciences across the university “through strategic leadership, coordination and alignment across the campus.”
A key element in the president’s Biosciences Initiative will be the hiring of 30 new faculty members over the next five years, and a one-time investment of $150 million. The coordinating committee will help identify research areas in the biosciences that are promising for additional investment including new faculty hires and equipment or other tools and capabilities that enable progress and catalyze collaboration.
“The potential for our faculty to integrate across disciplines and make truly novel contributions to human understanding is just astounding,” Schlissel said.
“In the biological sciences across campus, there may be 30 to 50 faculty searches occurring every year,” he said. “Simply by coordinating these recruitments, the committee can help us strengthen emerging programs that are examining important problems.”
Schlissel referred to the committee as an “in-house think tank” of sorts.
“Under Professor Cone’s leadership, the committee will help us identify opportunities that other universities may have overlooked, or ways to take advantage of our breadth that would not be obvious except to faculty researchers who are in the trenches doing this type of work every day,” Schlissel said.
Cone, a neuroendocrinologist who studies how the brain regulates body weight, was named the university’s first vice provost and director of the president’s Biosciences Initiative in May. He was appointed LSI director in June 2016 and came to Ann Arbor from Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine.
“The opportunities for discoveries in the life sciences right now are greater than ever, due in part to rapidly evolving technologies — including new imaging techniques and vast genomic resources — developed over the last five to 10 years,” Cone said.
“A lot of what’s driving discovery right now are the convergent sciences: big data and the imaging advances and the application of physics and chemistry and math to the life sciences,” he said. “Because this committee can create opportunities for better coordination and synergy and cooperation and recruiting, I think Michigan is in a unique place to advance quickly in the life sciences.”
As an example of an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to solving a major health issue, Cone mentioned an early-stage U-M effort to completely remove the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, from infected patients.
While there are drugs that treat patients with HIV infection by blocking viral replication, some of the virus remains in their bodies. Using drug-screening tools, U-M scientists identified compounds capable of killing HIV-infected cells, opening the possibility of someday removing the virus from infected individuals. The cross-campus effort includes researchers from the Medical School and LSI, as well as chemistry, biology and engineering departments.
“It’s at a very basic research stage, and it’s going to take years and years to move that forward and to see if it works,” Cone said. “But those types of fundamentally new approaches can happen — and often do happen — in academic research settings. And this Biosciences Initiative will provide resources to fuel those kinds of research programs.”
The Bioscience Initiative Coordinating Committee, which advises the president and the provost, will hold a series of town halls with U-M faculty this fall to help identify important biosciences problems that are ripe for study.