Citizens of Science

letter from the director

Citizens of Science

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

At the LSI, we are so focused on our efforts to bring top researchers from a range of fields, specialties and interests together in our labs that we have barely noticed how many of these scientists are from countries other than the United States.

At U-M, the LSI has a global platform for science. The university ranked 12th in the Times of London World Reputation Rankings in March 2012. And according to another survey, the QS World University rankings, U-M is 17th in terms of most "international faculty" of all institutions in the United States and by the same measures is the most international American public university.

But let’s dig a little deeper. The first in those rankings is MIT, where the faculty is about 40 percent international. Stanford University is about the same. At the LSI, more than 50 percent of the faculty is from outside the U.S. The LSI is more international than even the most international universities in the country. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s part of the LSI’s culture to seek different viewpoints, and in that quest we naturally gravitate toward and attract a diverse group.

In our building, leading scientists from Japan, China, Korea, Greece and Switzerland work with an international group of postdocs, who come from China, Japan, Taiwan, Pakistan, Australia, Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, India, Ukraine, Sweden, Lebanon, Belize and many other countries. If you include the hundred-plus international students working in LSI labs during any given semester, the picture becomes more kaleidoscopic.

In addition to mixing all of these different perspectives, personalities and languages together to see what exciting syntheses emerge, we’ve also begun methodically building bridges to other hotspots of scientific innovation around the world to exponentially increase the synapses between labs.

A couple of years ago, we established a program to promote scientific exchange and fund research projects that included scientists from U-M and scientists in Israel. Why Israel? The number of scientists per capita, the explosion of start-up companies, the excellence of the country’s academic institutions and the culture of innovation were all reasons Israel is on the forefront of exciting biomedical research.

Some very interesting findings emerged in our program’s pilot phase, including new insights into heritable diseases in Ashkenazi Jews, as well as an improved understanding of certain types of colon cancer.

Recently we have entered a new phase in the program. By partnering with U-M’s Cardiovascular Center, which had also established collaborations in Israel, we have combined our resources to form the UM/Israel Partnership for Research. Through this program we will fund collaborative research between the university and Israeli institutions, support exchanges for faculty and students, hold symposia both in Ann Arbor and Israel, and perhaps even get behind new commercial ventures. We hope that the UM/Israel Partnership will be a prototype for future international collaboration.

A major challenge facing all of us in academia is to keep pace with changes in the way science is conducted, and to anticipate the potential of new perspectives and technologies. After all, the traditional academic structure is designed for stability, not risk.

But at the LSI, where we’re able to pursue high-risk work and where we believe there is potential for high impact, we try to push each other into what I refer to as the "discomfort zone." It’s uncomfortable to learn a new language, venture into a new field or question your own assumptions, but when we embrace the unfamiliar, whether it’s the language and assumptions of a cultural outlook or a scientific discipline, amazing things can happen. Whether we’re talking about “interdisciplinarity” or “international outlook,” the unpredictability is the promise.

December 2012