A Decade of Discovery

A Decade of Discovery

by Alan Saltiel
Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute

Our lives over the last decade have been a whirl—scientifically and institutionally. When the first labs moved into the Life Sciences Institute ten years ago, we could only anticipate the unexpected, embrace the unknown, and respond as agilely as we could to the opportunities and challenges of rapidly evolving technology, exponentially bigger and bigger sets of data, and financial challenges.

As a community of deeply committed researchers, supporters, advisers and staff, we’ve approached each trend and development as a chance to innovate. We’ve pushed ourselves into the “discomfort zone” while watching for pitfalls of stagnancy and complacency. We took non-traditional approaches to key areas at the LSI: faculty composition, organizational design, the built environment, educating students and creating a distinct culture. Obviously we made some mistakes along the way, but have continually tried to self-correct.

As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, I’ve been thinking about what we’ve learned from this grand experiment and how it might shape our future.

Our Faculty

It should go without saying that our scientists are the institute and our raison d’etre. Our faculty is our single most valuable investment. We operate in a way that is free from traditional academic boundaries, and that comes with a challenge—how do we create an institute that’s more than a sum of its parts?

We started with the assumption that today’s biomedical problems are too vast and complex to be solved by any single scientist or addressed by a single academic field. Our plan was for the institute’s faculty to be interdisciplinary and complementary. We monitored our mix of junior and senior faculty, and focused on building a community that easily traverses the boundaries of those disciplines. In short, we mix it up in any way we can.

The mix matters even more when you think about our flat structure. We make decisions by consensus, and that’s often contentious. But we gain from our constant discussion of differences and similarities between scientific disciplines and their priorities and measures of success. We constantly revisit subjects that traditional departments never question. It would be impossible to be complacent in this environment.

The faculty all have two things in common, though: They are dedicated basic scientists who are deeply engaged with a passion for understanding how life works, and they are genuinely excited about hanging out with each other.

They are exceptional by the science world’s usual measures of publications and awards. But the most important outcome has been the creation of this distinct culture. It’s qualitative and intangible, the evidence is anecdotal, and we all know not to confuse correlation with causation. But I’ve learned that enthusiasm for our distinct culture is as important as the credentials of the faculty in the LSI.

Organizational Design

The institute was conceived of as a research center outside of traditional academic departments and the university hospital system, yet connected to both. Being outside “the system” allowed us to recruit top faculty from a range of fields around the world, rather than from a single discipline. The institute is agile, able to respond quickly and able to create a powerful independent identity on the bedrock of a great public university.

Our independent status is not without its challenges. Financially we are subject to the national funding environment, which means we need to carefully steward our financial resources without being too conservative.  At the same time, as a small player in large community, we need to remain free of institutional pressures to conform to trends that we think are not consistent with our mission or culture. Finally, we must remain vigilant in our commitment to innovation and excellence, and stay relentlessly driven by our core values. Right now this means investing in futuristic technologies like cryo-electron microscopy, supporting our colleagues who use model systems to evaluate basic pathways and processes in biology, and encouraging our faculty to follow the science above all.

So many external factors can detract from the essential work of science. Writing grant applications, managing a staff, maintaining equipment, promoting your own work and the other basics of running a lab eat up more and more of scientists’ time. At the LSI we provide a professional staff that takes care of as much of that as they can, allowing scientists to do experiments, write and publish papers, speak at conferences and otherwise be scientists, not managers, for as much of the day as possible.

Our organizational design—in relation to the university and within our walls—free scientists to focus on what really matters: Discovery.

Architecture and the working environment

In biology, we often say that form follows function. When the architects from Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates designed the LSI, they considered the ideal function of the lab of the future. With large open lab spaces—now de rigeur, but radical at the time—copious natural light, materials with integrity and a thoughtful execution, the design of the institute represented the ideals of collaboration, creativity and inspiration. At the same time the building incorporates visual references to midcentury factory design in a way that celebrates work, efficiency and functionality

The building has served its purpose. Spontaneous conversations spring up through the space. If anything, we think about how to multiply these between floors as well as throughout the long corridors of research space. Shared equipment saves money and space. Shared ideas lead to new approaches.

And throughout the building, a collection of art inspired by and exploring the ideas of science reminds everyone working within of the “big picture” of scientific inquiry—the search for truth and the improvement of human life.

Form followed the anticipated function, but I’m reminded every day of how the form of the LSI drives the activity within. I’m sure that the same scientists working in a building full of isolated labs would not have formed the community we have today,

Students

The LSI unequivocally exists to support, catalyze and promote scientific discovery. The same structure and resources also allows students to thrive in the institute. In the last ten years we’ve supported students through the Perrigo Undergraduate Fellowship and the LSI Fellows program, a graduate class called the Business of Biology and most recently the addition of the Program in Chemical Biology.

Training the next generation of scientists in collaborative and innovative ways of working gives them a fresh set of tools to share through their professional lives.  But students also play an important role in the institute: Free to move easily throughout the building, they cross-pollinate the labs. In my lab, students will come to me with a problem—and they’ve already started collaborating on the problem with a student from another lab. It’s a cliché to say the teacher learns from the students, but it’s real. Teaching teaches the teachers.

Culture

We follow the science. The importance of science so thoroughly permeates everything that happens at the LSI that calling “a focus on basic science” an innovation seems ridiculous. And after all, don’t scientists everywhere do science? What’s so special about the LSI?

We care about science above all else. We’re able to recruit top faculty from around the world because they know that in the institute they can focus on what matters most to them.

You don’t have to work in our labs to “get it,” though. We are fortunate to have friends who believe in the power of a culture like ours and who have contributed their time, expertise and financial support to realize the promise of this institute.

By clearing the clutter from the scientific endeavor, upholding excellence as the most important criteria, providing a structure within which we can embrace risk—all of these things allow the institute as a group to follow the science. And that is what ultimately has the potential for impact on human health.

September 2013