September 30, 2002

'Biorevolution' Forum Held To Discuss Science Initiative

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Saturday morning Homecoming preparations typically consist of firing up the barbecue. But this weekend’s pregame activity for several dozen students, faculty and alumni was a Homecoming forum with a revolutionary spirit — alumni getting fired up about the bio-revolution. Titled “The Biorevolution: Accelerating Discovery and Improving Lives,” the forum was sponsored by the University’s Office of Alumni Affairs and focused on new trends in the life sciences. Kraig Adler, vice provost for life sciences, moderated the panel.

“Today’s revolution in biology is as important as the discovery of DNA in the 1950’s by Watson and Crick, only it will affect our lives even more,” Adler said.

It began with sequencing the genetic material of organisms in the late 1990’s. Since then, it has become apparent that genetic material is a common language among all organisms, meaning that discoveries in one organism can be very rapidly transferred into understanding in other organisms.

Part of this new revolution in biology is realizing that “modern biology is not just solely biology,” said Adler.

“It is much more than that. The New Life Sciences, as we are calling it here at Cornell, is really a blending of the organismal biology that has been so strong here at Cornell together with materials science, physics, chemistry and also computational science and biological statistics.” Adler pointed that those programs are all ranked in the top 10 nationally.

These new relationships within the life sciences are set to be nurtured by Cornell’s New Life Sciences Initiative (NLSI), a favorite topic of panelists and the alumni audience. The NLSI is a $500 million university-wide initiative that will bring together the University’s best professors and facilities in science and engineering in order to solve problems of the modern life sciences.

Testimony to the interdisciplinary nature of the biorevolution and Cornell’s New Life Sciences Initiative were the panel’s speakers. Prof. Brian Crane, chemistry and chemical biology and Prof. Carl Batt, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Food Science and director of the Cornell University/Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research Partnership spoke of their research experience in biology.

Crane began with “everything that you need to know about biology in one slide.” The slide was a picture of DNA being translated into protein. Crane studies the protein systems that underlie humans’ basic time perception.

“I work at the interface between the physical and the biological sciences,” said Crane. “And I think that there is almost no better place to do that than here at Cornell.”

Batt works at the same interface, doing cancer research by bringing together interdisciplinary teams to approach various problems, some at the molecular level of the nanometer.

When asked how the biorevolution might change undergraduate science education in the near future, Adler responded, “It’s already changed. For example, we have new programs of study like computational biology that are within the biology major. It’s already having an effect, and my guess is that it’s going to totally revolutionize our curriculum.”

Biology 101 won’t disappear just yet, but Adler said he forsees a senescence of biology courses within the next few years. Some biology courses will disappear and new ones will be taught in their place.

“I would imagine that many of these new courses are going to be taught in an interdisciplinary way,” said Adler.

“We’re going to see many more courses taught jointly by a biologist or a chemist, or a biologist and an engineer or some other combination that reflects some of these new relationships within biology.”

Archived article by Adrianne Kroepsch