April 14, 2003

C.U. Discusses Life Sciences Initiative

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On Saturday, nearly 200 Cornell faculty, alumni and friends gathered in Washington D.C. in the name of the most far-reaching research effort in the history of Cornell — the New Life Sciences Initiative (NLSI). Entitled “The Power and Promise of Life Sciences,” the proceedings began with remarks by President Hunter R. Rawlings III, ended with a keynote address by Dr. Claire M. Fraser, president and director of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), and squeezed plenty of examples of the “power” and “promise” of the life sciences in between.

The special forum, coordinated by James Mazaa, alumni affairs special projects campaign director, was an opportunity to extend a sense of the excitement and potential of NLSI from far above Cayuga’s waters to individuals in Cornell’s greater family. A similar gathering took place on March 19, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; another is scheduled for May 8, at the Museum of Science in Boston.

“For those of you who are looking for ‘the next big thing,’ I would say that this is essentially it,” Rawlings said, adding, “the biorevolution is not a passing fad like the dot-com disaster, body-piercing, or reality television. It is an intellectual revolution of major proportions.”

According to Rawlings, Cornell’s remarkable “scale and scope” as a research university makes it specially equipped to lead the “biorevolution.” He added that the University has an established track record of successful multidisciplinary cooperation in teaching and research, not only on the Ithaca campus, but also at the Weill Medical College.

The $500 million University-wide plan intends to enhance interdisciplinary and collaborative research and education among biologists, physical scientists, engineers and computational scientists. By joining forces and using novel technologies and approaches, life scientists hope to address some of the world’s most challenging problems — such as feeding the world’s ever growing population, combating bioterrorism, curing diseases, and protecting the environment.

“The new life sciences are shaking the foundations of all disciplines and creating loads of new combinations with ‘bio’ in their names,” Rawlings said, joking that when he returns to life as a professor in the Classics department next year, he is going to recommend that the department’s name be changed to “bio”-Classics. “If we want any chance at funding in this new world, we’re going to have to get ‘bio’ in the title somewhere,” he added.

Of note in the NLSI’s design is the emphasis on teaching — education will not be left behind in the dust of a revolutionary research rush. Rawlings said that Cornell is the number one place for undergraduates in the life sciences to go on to earn a Ph.D., and that the NLSI will continue to build on that momentum.

As an example of young research prowess, the minds of the next generation were on display in a research poster session that included undergraduates Jessica R. Hof ’04, Adrianne Kroepsch ’03, Vincent Ming-Chuan Lee ’03 and Catherine Wood ’03, plus Paul M. Forlano grad, Jonas Korlach grad ’00 and Nuttawee Niamisiri, grad ’00.

During the poster session, Lee found that, more often than not, he was explaining his research on the rice genome to interested, but scientifically intimidated, alumni. Lee is a Cornell Presidential Research Scholar, and when asked about the role that research has played in his undergraduate career, he responded, “Research is a big time and energy commitment, but if you do like what you’re doing, it is very fulfilling. It gives you a different perspective on classes and what parts of them are the most important, giving you more incentive to learn and making it more meaningful.”

The faculty and alumni were also eager to discuss the “power” and “promise” of the life sciences as manifested in their own laboratories and careers.

First, a panel of Cornell researchers discussed “Accelerating Discovery: A New Paradigm for Addressing Medicine, Food Production, and the Environment.” The panel included Prof. Michael I. Kotlikoff, chair, biomedical sciences, followed by Nelson G. Hairston Jr., Frank H.T. Rhodes professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Susan R. McCouch, Ph.D. ’90, associate professor, plant breeding and plant biology.

Kotlikoff, who serves as director of the Cornell Core Transgenic Mouse Facility, explained his work in mammalian genomics and the power of the mouse in new life sciences research. Hairston discussed his research on lake ecosystems, especially clean up efforts on Onondaga Lake outside of Syracuse, which is “proud to be the most polluted lake in North America,” he said. McCouch outlined her endeavors in rice breeding, focusing on the potential for introducing useful genes from wild rice species to develop improved varieties for growing in conditions that are harsh environmentally and impoverished culturally.

“It is important to think beyond the borders of the state and the nation, and to ask what science can do to improve the state of the world as a whole,” McCouch said. “The power of collaboration is now on a global scale, as we ask ourselves what does Cornell have to offer to a global society?”

The alumni panel discussed “The Business of the Life Sciences: The Next Big Thing?” The panel included Dr. Marlene Krauss ’65, managing director of KBL Healthcare Ventures, Dr. Lisa Skeete Tatum ’89, general partner at Cardinal Partners and Dr. Scott Koenig ’73, President and CEO of MacroGenics, Inc. The alumni dealt with the role

of the academic entrepreneur in the life sciences from a venture capitalist perspective, discussing marketable applications of biomedical research.

The day’s events were brought to a close by keynote speaker Prof. Claire Fraser, pharmacology and microbiology, George Washington University School of Medicine, President and Director of TIGR. Fraser’s comments harkened back to the global perspective raised by McCouch.

“Genomics does offer some real promise in helping the lives of people around the world,” Fraser said, adding that the new life sciences make possible large-scale approaches to vaccine development, pathogen genome sequencing that may lead to new tools against anthrax and other microbial enemies, and livestock research that could save small-scale farmers from the cycle of poverty.

“For me personally, there has never been a more exciting time to be in science,” Fraser said. “The life sciences have the power to transform our lives in ways that we can only begin to imagine.”

Archived article by Adrianne Kroepsch