January 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 16
Tech, Emory research chiefs rely on family chemistry
The warm aroma of red sauce with garlic permeates Dennis Liotta's home as three generations of his Italian-American family assemble for their weekly meal together. Aside from rich ethnic fare, the Sunday ritual is a time for Dennis and his older brother, Charles, to catch up on the latest research taking place at their partner universities, Emory and Georgia Tech.
The brothers hold the same research positions at the schools. Dennis, 49, is Emory's vice president for research. Emory received about $165 million in research funding during the academic year ended Aug. 31.
Charles, 61, is vice provost for research at Georgia Tech, which received $200 million in research awards.
The universities have teamed up on various research and business incubator projects, including the recently announced biotechnology development center, to be created at the Emory West property on Briarcliff Road, and the living tissues Engineering Research Center at Georgia Tech.
The relationship between the schools mirrors that of the brothers Liotta, who believe having siblings at the helms of research of two partner colleges strengthens both sets of bonds.
"Georgia Tech is considered one of the outstanding engineering schools," said Charles, a taller, leaner version of his kid brother. "Emory is considered one of the outstanding medical schools. Both have strong science programs. The interaction is a marriage of interdisciplinary work to solve real world problems. Two related people move this along."
Dennis, who respectfully allows his older brother to speak first, has a similar view. "Charlie and I exemplify what exists in general at Emory and Georgia Tech. We trust each other inherently. We have respect for each other, and we see opportunities if we work together," Dennis said.
Unlike competing colleges, Dennis said, Emory and Georgia Tech have found they are stronger united than separated.
The brothers are not the only ones who see the benefits of sibling research heads who genuinely admire each other and forgo the traditional handshake among colleagues for a hug and kiss.
"They talk more, so they have more insight into what each other's institution is doing," said Michael Cassidy, vice president of the Georgia Research Alliance, a public-private partnership of government, business and colleges, including Emory and Georgia Tech. "It will lead to more collaborative efforts between the schools," he said.
Does that mean the brothers and the schools will always get along? Their mother would insist on it, they said.
Their mother and father, who live with Dennis in McDonough, are extremely proud of their sons.
"What mother wouldn't want it, them being together and working so well together?" said 86-year-old Nettie Liotta. "I must have done something right."
Her 84-year-old husband, Casey, is equally thrilled. "You don't know how happy I am that they are in the same field," their father said.
Charles was appointed to his position in March. Dennis had been in his post for two years. But when they began their careers, Charles was the leader.
"I used to baby-sit Dennis," Charles said. They have a middle brother, too. The family lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., before moving to Long Island.
"When he left for graduate school, I was only 9," Dennis said of Charles. The elder brother said he was surprised that Dennis followed the same career track. Both are organic chemists.
"I was too much older to be a big influence," Charles said.
Charles received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Brooklyn College and his doctorate from the University of Maryland. He completed a year of postdoctoral chemistry there before heading to Georgia Tech in 1964 to finish those studies. Landing a job on Tech's faculty, he moved his way up from assistant professor to his current position.
Coincidentally, Dennis came to Emory in 1976, also as an assistant professor. He was fresh out of college at the time, having completed his undergraduate studies at Queens College in New York, his doctoral training at City University of New York and postdoctoral work at Ohio State University.
"It helped having family here," Dennis admitted. "Charlie had already gotten an apartment for us. He made it easy. At a time when I had no money whatsoever, having an older brother here made it attractive."
Dennis thinks the two wound up in the parallel positions by fate as much as anything else.
"What's great is we don't have to dance around issues," he said. "We can be very direct. For people with busy schedules, we are able to cut to the chase."
One of the main benefits of their positions, the brothers said, is that it allows them to continue their research.
Dennis oversees the design and development of anti-cancer and anti-viral drugs for diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis B. An anti-viral drug he helped develop for AIDS, is in clinical trials and he expects approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market the product within two years.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently designated the Emory/Atlanta Center for AIDS Research is one of 17 official NIH centers for AIDS research in the country.
As Dennis focuses on fighting the disease, Charles is trying to develop environmentally friendly methods of making products such as plastics and drugs.
The brothers have written and talked extensively about their areas of expertise and have numerous patents related to their research, Charles said, bragging about his brother's accomplishments as much as his own. Among those, Charles and Dennis each have two sons, who also are very close. Another bit of family pride is their relation to actor Ray Liotta, a third cousin.
"He's pretty lucky," Dennis said.
To which Charles added, "If he plays his cards right, we may invite him over for Sunday dinner."
This article first appeared in the Atlanta Business Chronicle
and is excerpted with permission.