Omenn lecture to focus on bridging science and policy world


The future of federal science funding and the role of scientific evidence in policymaking has rocketed into the public spotlight in recent weeks. Many who work in science, medicine and engineering may find themselves pondering whether and how to enter the fray.

Gilbert S. Omenn’s lecture March 28 as a Distinguished University Professor, the highest professorial honor bestowed on U-M faculty, may provide some inspiration.

Gilbert Omenn

Omenn has spent decades straddling the worlds of science, medicine and policy — from the Nixon, Carter and Clinton administrations to the leadership of the university’s academic medical center, the nation’s largest general scientific society, and now the global Human Proteome Project.

In his lecture, Omenn will share reflections on these experiences and the mentors who guided him through the early stages of his career. He’ll also speak about his work during the last 15 years leading the HPP.

Titled “Proteins, Policy, and Paths Less Travel’d: My Career as a Physician-Scientist,” the talk will begin at 4 p.m. in the Amphitheatre on the second floor of the Rackham Building. A reception will follow.

Its title evokes a line from the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” Frost was poet-in-residence at U-M in the early 1920s.

A medical geneticist, cancer prevention clinical trialist and former Howard Hughes Investigator, Omenn now holds the Harold T. Shapiro Distinguished University Professorship, with appointments in the Medical School’s departments of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics, Internal Medicine, and Human Genetics, as well as in the School of Public Health.

He also leads the universitywide Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics, with 110 faculty affiliates, and is a member of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

His work on proteins has evolved from deep study of individual proteins and protein models to mapping the full complement of proteins in a rigorous way. The HPP aims to lay a molecular and biological foundation for improving health through better understanding of disease processes, more accurate diagnoses, and targets for more effective therapies and preventive interventions.

Omenn came to U-M in 1997 as the first executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of what was soon christened the U-M Health System, after leading the University of Washington School of Public Health & Community Medicine as dean.

He mounted major initiatives in faculty recruitment, community engagement and synergies across the missions. The Omenn Atrium in the Taubman Biomedical Sciences Research Building recognizes his accomplishments. 

After stepping down from his U-M executive role in 2002, he focused on proteomics and bioinformatics, part of what’s now known as the “big data” movement in medical research.

Omenn served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and on the Scientific Management Review Board for the National Institutes of Health. He is currently a member of the Council of the National Academy of Medicine. In 2014 he received the David Rogers Award from the Association of American Medical Schools for his contribution to health care in America.

His entry into the policy world as a junior faculty member was through the White House Fellows Program. Assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission, he worked on international nuclear policy during a critical early-1970s period.

He returned to his biochemical genetic research on the brain and started a health policy program for young physicians at the University of Washington.

During the Carter years he served as associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and then the Office of Management and Budget. In the 1990s he chaired a presidential and congressional commission on risk assessment and risk management, which had broad influence.

“I have often pursued what Robert Frost called the path less traveled,” says Omenn. Through his lecture, he says, “I hope to stimulate some in the audience to make proteomics and bioinformatics important new elements of their research and others to explore roles enhancing our nation’s policies and programs.”


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