A cutting-edge community

letter from the director

A cutting-edge community 
by Alan Saltiel 
Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute 

Before there was a brick-and-mortar Life Sciences Institute, there was the Life Sciences Symposium. In 2002, while construction was still underway, we held our first symposium, on the structural biology of cell signaling. Leading experts from institutions around the world working in what was then an emerging area of cross-disciplinary research spanning cell biology, physics and chemistry converged on U-M's Ann Arbor campus to engage in conversation and exchange perspectives. 

The event continues to represent the LSI's most important values: excellence in science, investment in high-risk and high-impact research, and especially the synergy that happens when top scientists from a range of fields meet and share their work around a common theme.   

This month we will be hosting the 11th Annual LSI Symposium, and will be hearing from some of the leading researchers in the world about their work on the nervous system. These are people who would not normally speak at the same conference, and that's the point. 

The career of Dr. Susan Lindquist, Member (and former director) of the Whitehead Institute, Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, MIT professor and pioneer in the study of protein folding, exemplifies the impact of basic science, and I’m pleased that Dr. Lindquist will deliver the keynote address at this year’s event. Dr. Lindquist’s remarkable path has been one of boldly following sometimes-controversial science—often in the face of discouragement and doubt—and of contributing very significant findings to the way cells respond to stress, to a now-accepted understanding of infectious proteins, and of the process of protein misfolding that seems to be implicated in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, and perhaps to others, like cancer, as well.

When she began her career, the basic structure of cells was barely understood. Now, based on findings in yeast and other model organisms that illuminated just what might be going wrong with neurons when they begin to die, her lab is testing possible therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth most common cause of the death in the U.S. Clearly, it’s easy to point to Dr. Lindquist’s research as a example of why basic science is so critical to treating human disease.

In the years since that first symposium, we’ve held meetings on stem cells, autophagy, cancer, evolutionary biology and others. The symposium remains emblematic of LSI’s philosophy: gather the best minds together and extraordinary things can happen.

We’ve seen a decade of heady change in the life sciences since the LSI opened its doors. The cost and time barriers to genetic screening have dramatically lowered. New microscopic imaging technology allows astounding visualizations of never-before-seen worlds within cells. The collaborative teams and open labs of the LSI, radical when established, have been widely adopted.

But at the same time, the tensions around basic science haven’t changed. Researchers still struggle for funding, policy doesn’t always harmonize with science, the traditional academic structure still defines many careers, and as some disorders become better understood and easier to treat, patients with other diseases understandably demand quick answers. The quest for understanding the very essential mechanisms of life—the passion at the heart of our work—continues to drive our communities: the people within the LSI, the scientific and university worlds, and the supporters who make it possible.

If you haven’t witnessed an LSI symposium, please consider attending a talk or two in order to experience this community at work (or read coverage of the event on the LSI website if you are not near Ann Arbor.) I don’t know what new ideas will be presented on May 24, but know this group of excellent scientists, from all over the world, will share insights that will inspire, provoke or otherwise catalyze discoveries we have yet to even imagine.