Beyond Achievement

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

The news in this issue of exploreLSI bears witness to the tremendous growth and achievement of our junior faculty. Just consider this line up: Yukiko Yamashita wins the MacArthur Award,Jason Gestwicki is promoted to associate professor and named to lead the Center for Chemical Genomics; and Yiorgo Skiniotis publishes a breakthrough paper working with other scientists around the globe. 

And this is just a small sample of the many achievements made by this stellar cohort of researchers. We also recently marked the promotions ofShawn Xu and Jiandie Lin to associate professor and John Tesmerto professor. I could fill this entire column with milestones like these, telling you exciting stories about each of these terrific young scientists. I encourage you to read more about their achievements on our website.
But achievements aside, the awards, papers, and promotions do not really convey what is so special about this group and the rest of the faculty at LSI. They possess a set of qualities that is rare in science. For one, they are not afraid to venture far outside their comfort zones. Jason, trained as chemist for more than ten years, has dived deeply into biology, embracing the uncertainty characteristic of biological systems.
Shawn has used worms to ask the most surprising questions; such as how do we sense touch, temperature, drugs, and even our own selves. Jiandie is learning how biorhythms influence obesity and diabetes at the molecular level. John is a structural biologist who has been bouncing back and forth between chemistry and cell biology as he navigates towards real progress in understanding how functions of the heart are controlled. They all seem to find themselves working at the boundaries of the disciplines, often tripping over into new fields.
Far from the stereotype of hermit-like academics, these scientists thrive on interacting with others. Our most recent survey found more than 100 active collaborations in the Institute and many more beyond its walls. Walking around the building I constantly see our faculty (and their students and fellows) engaged in deep and serious conversations with others outside their labs, disciplines, or areas of concentration. They are eager to talk about their work, your work, and really, about everything with everybody. You can imagine how much fun it is to be part of the LSI.
And boy, are they creative! Consider the words of Jason and Yukiko about their recent success. Jason says he always wants to work “just on the edge of what it is possible.” Yukiko wants to use her MacArthur award to “wander off the original plan,” and to use her imagination more freely. LSI faculty members are dreamers — willing to let go of the known and imagine the future.
When you think about it, these qualities of courage, openness, curiosity, alertness, and creativity are also traits we associate with great leaders. And leadership is what it takes to make meaningful progress in science.