Emory Report
April 17, 2006
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 17, 2006
Life science wraps up spring seminar series

by Holly Korschun

When Emory College was founded in Oxford in 1836, only one scientist was on the faculty, said chemist Dennis Liotta. After Emory moved its main campus to Atlanta, the science faculty began to grow exponentially, but for many years it was characterized by research specialization and narrow focus rather than cooperation and interdisciplinary study.

But in the 21st century, the hallmark of scientific inquiry is collaboration—a wholistic, systemic view in which virtually everything depends on everything else.

This all-encompassing approach to science, though, is an unwieldy business without the ability to quantify, systematize and integrate, which is exactly the purpose of Emory’s new strategic initiative of “Computational and Life Sciences,” agreed a panel of faculty and staff gathered on March 30 in Goizueta Business School for the last of a series of six seminars devoted to the strategic initiatives. The panelists said their assigned theme’s purpose should be to unite the University’s science community in order to tackle “big science” initiatives that require broad interaction and the advanced computational ability to keep track of it all.

“There has been a fundamental change in science and translational research that has created new tools that allow us to view a problem using a huge number of measurements simultaneously,” said human genetics chair and initiative co-leader Steve Warren. “This will allow us to find new drugs and biomarkers, but we need the computational ability to extract as much information as possible. This is an exciting time in which we can bridge the physical and life sciences, which have historically been separated.”

Faculty from chemistry, genetics, mathematics, physics, pharmacology, cancer, information technology and public health, directed by Warren and initiative co-leader David Lynn, assessed Emory’s strengths and weaknesses in basic science and bioinformatics.

The strengths: A faculty expert in computational sciences; high throughput equipment in genomics and drug screening; academically rare partnerships among University departments, such as chemistry and the medical school; partnerships with other universities like Georgia Tech; and an overarching spirit of collegiality.

The weaknesses? Insufficient computational resources; inadequate faculty interaction among diverse disciplines; facilities that limit collaboration; and little ability for the right hand of science to know what the left one is doing.

Suggestions for remedying these issues ranged from the simple concept of a lunchroom where faculty could discuss genetics and drug discovery in between bites of tuna fish sandwiches, to an interactive web resource and database that would serve as a computerized bulletin board drawing together faculty researchers from diverse disciplines. Several participants cited industry methods used to unite employees from diverse disciplines through project integration, and others spoke of the need for more joint appointments and rewards for research collaboration.

“The University currently is school driven,” said Rollins School of Public Health behavioral scientist Howard Kushner. “We need to reward people who work together and not always give the principal investigator all the credit.”

There should be a way for people in different departments to apply jointly for grants, Kushner said. One problem created by the research fragmentation at Emory is the need for individual researchers to become jacks of all trades, educating themselves about biocomputing and image processing at the same time they write grants and focus on teaching and research. Enhancing computational resources could be helpful to research faculty across the University.

“Emory needs to get ahead of the curve in high performance computing,” said Rich Mendola, Emory’s new chief information officer.

“The most important thing is people and how they can work together,” said Lanny Liebeskind, who as the new director of University science strategies is poised to address just such issues. “We need to provide the structures that will facilitate community and team building.”

Several scientists recalled examples of colleagues searching around the country for research collaborators only to find the top experts resided right under their own noses on the other side of campus. Emory’s molecular biophysics program, for instance, is unique in the United States, yet many University scientists are unaware of this valuable resource.

“If this strategic theme works out as we hope, we will transform much of the way we do science at Emory,” Liebeskind said. “We will identify new problems we can only solve by working together.”