Looking Back, Looking Forward

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

As some of you have heard by now, after 13 years as director of the Life Sciences Institute, I will soon be taking on a new role. Starting in September, I will be creating and leading a new comprehensive diabetes center at the University of California, San Diego.

U-M President Mark Schlissel will be launching a national search for a new director in the coming weeks, someone who can continue and build on the institute’s success.

The LSI is well-positioned as it enters a new, exciting phase of its history. Our own Stephen Weiss, M.D., Upjohn Professor of Internal Medicine and Oncology, will serve as iterim director. Steve is an outstanding scientist, respected by the LSI faculty and staff and very well regarded in the cancer research community; he will do a terrific job leading the Institute through this transition period. LSI faculty member David Ginsburg, M.D., will chair the search committee charged with identifying a top scientist to lead the LSI into its next chapter.  I have complete confidence that my two friends will do a terrific job managing these changes.

But right now, I want to take the opportunity to pause and reflect on how far we've come in just a short decade and a half.

Since the regents approved the creation of the LSI in 1999, the institute has grown into a nexus for life sciences research on the campus, with annual sponsored research revenue above $20 million, and a total annual budget approaching $40 million.

We’ve created major collaborative centers for chemical genomics and structural biology serving the entire campus. We’ve invested in the human expertise and technological resources to serve as an accelerator for drug discovery at U-M with the creation of the Center for the Discovery of New Medicines — which we see as a growing area of focus in the coming years. And we have several projects advancing toward commercialization.

But the real story of the LSI’s birth and “startup” years lies in the people of the LSI — our faculty, students and staff, as well as our advisory boards, partners across the university, and all of our friends and supporters. It’s no exaggeration to say that the LSI wouldn’t be what it is today without every one of them — of you.

Still, I want to draw special attention to the LSI faculty. Through dedicated recruitment efforts, we have assembled a genuinely interdisciplinary and collaborative group of senior and junior scientists with wide-ranging expertise in biochemistry, cell biology, chemical biology, computational biology, genetics, neuroscience, structural biology, stem cell biology, and medicine.

Institute faculty have consistently demonstrated research excellence with more than 1,400 publications — including more than 250 in top journals like Science, Nature and Cell.

And despite our small size, our faculty members have been recognized with more than 80 major awards, including:

  • election to the Institute of Medicine (5 faculty)
  • election to the National Academy of Sciences (2 faculty)
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowships (10 faculty)
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators (5 faculty)
  • Pew Biomedical Scholars (5 faculty)
  • Searle Scholars (2 faculty)
  • Burroughs Wellcome Scholars (2 faculty)
  • Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2 faculty)
  • MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowships (2 faculty)

While each LSI researcher is exceptional by the science world’s usual measures of publications and awards, I believe their most impressive accomplishment has come as a group — through the creation of a distinct culture that blends innovation, collaboration and excellence. As I like to say, we evolved from group of great scientists into a great group of scientists.

And let’s not forget the educational aspect of our mission — numerous undergraduate and graduate students have learned and grown in our labs. We can also claim more than 120 alumni who have earned Ph.D.s here, and of whose work and publications and awards we’re extremely proud. It’s no accident that the LSI serves as the home for the Chemical Biology Program and the Business of Biology course.

These are all reasons that made the choice to leave a difficult one, but I would rather this be a moment for celebrating the amazing things we been able to accomplish together. I look forward to tracking the institute’s progress in the years to come.

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of the Explore LSI newsletter.