The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences

Strategic Plan

Investing in science with insight, science with innovation, and science with impact

The Huck to Date

The Huck Institutes were established in 1996 to enhance and facilitate excellence in interdisciplinary research and training in the life sciences across Penn State. We accomplish this by investing strategically in the recruitment of outstanding faculty who then build and retain precedence in strategic areas including infectious disease, genome sciences, plant sciences, and the neurosciences. We facilitate new initiatives and insights by seeding emerging fields (e.g., metabolomics), providing leadership in interdisciplinary graduate education, and ensuring that our faculty, staff, and students have access to state-of-the-art workspace and instrumentation.

Without question, our targeted investments in faculty co-hires, graduate education, and facilities have paid off well, and Penn State is now recognized as a world leader within fields of the life sciences. The institutes and centers that comprise the Huck work to focus the dispersed strengths across colleges, and align our institutional strengths with our research strategy and long-term societal needs. Our graduate education portfolio includes some of the leading graduate programs in the country and is exceptional: with students placed in multiple colleges and departments and applying interdisciplinary approaches to issues in the life sciences.

Overall, the state of the life sciences at Penn State is strong, with an impressive array of faculty-led research centers and programs supported by state-of-the-art instrumentation and facilities and by exceptional graduate programs. The Huck Institutes are well positioned to take life sciences to the next level.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to enable and promote excellence in research and graduate training in the life sciences through focused investment in outstanding faculty, interdisciplinary programs, and state-of-the-art facilities. We achieve this through effective and efficient operational processes in a collegial environment that promotes open communication, collaboration, diversity, and professional development.

We aim to:

  • Attract and retain world-leading scientists and support them with state-of-the-art instrumentation, workspace, and strong graduate programs
  • Facilitate interactions between disciplines and encourage collaboration toward identifying and solving major societal challenges
  • Foster a culture that encourages open communication and innovation
  • Develop and support shared and flexible infrastructure to maximize research efficiency
  • Ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of operational procedures
  • Promote respect, diversity, and sharing within the workplace
  • Foster innovation and entrepreneurial activities through active engagement with industry partners and the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem

Vision

The challenge for the life sciences is to obtain insight and understanding of the very processes of life, health, and food, and in so doing, identify solutions to societal issues that lead to well-being and wealth creation. The approach moves beyond the confines of biology and biochemistry and requires scientists to form trans-disciplinary teams with an appreciation of the physical, computational, and social sciences. This was the original impetus for the establishment of the Huck Institutes in 1996 and remains the focus of our activities.

Our five-year vision is that Penn State will be a central player in the sweeping reform of life sciences. We shall retain precedence in areas of expertise, become a go-to place for accessing tools, for analyzing and accessing dispersed and large data, seek to find solutions to pressing issues of health and agriculture and their interaction with the environment. We shall be proactive in developing the skills and support for faculty ensuring that Penn State retains precedence in cutting-edge science while partnering with others in cyberscience to address issues associated with bioinformatics, theory, and systems biology. We shall also focus on three new thrust areas associated with data and health (D2I2), the pressing issues of adaptation to environmental change (PreAdapt), and spurring the development of novel technologies that will help us to achieve this (CoBEAM):

Thrust 1: Data to Insight and Innovation (D2I2 – “D-two-I-two”)

Advances in research technologies have shifted the limits in scientific productivity from data production to data management, interpretation, and dissemination. This development will allow us to study many of the deeper aspects of molecular interaction and also the fundamental questions of individual variability. The D2I2 initiative seeks to make Penn State the go-to place for the tools and technologies that lead to biological insight, to innovation, and to shaping policy in strategic areas such as personalized medicine, disease control, and food production.

Thrust 2: Promoting Resilience and Adaptation in Biological Systems (PreAdapt)

Anthropogenic and environmental changes are having a profound impact on the health and sustainability of humans, agriculture, and natural ecosystems. The PReAdapt initiative seeks to understand and prevent the consequences of selective pressures, specifically evolutionary change, that arise through anthropogenically induced insults, and to mitigate such issues as antimicrobial resistance and adaptation to climate change.

Thrust 3: Convergence of Biological, Engineering, and Materials Sciences (Co-Beam)

The remarkable development in materials sciences provides a great opportunity to construct new diagnostics and devices to aid research and identify solutions to health problems. We shall seek to stimulate the development of novel devices, imaging tools, and biologically inspired materials that will help transform life sciences research and spur innovation.

Our long-term vision is to facilitate transformative discoveries in the life sciences by enabling path-breaking research, stimulating innovation, and inspiring the next generation to work in a collaborative environment.

Strategic Opportunities

An enduring component of our strategic plan and vision is to maintain our long-term trajectory of continuing to build excellence in the life sciences. As such, we will continue to hire new faculty in a strategic way that supports excellence in key interdisciplinary areas including infectious disease, genome sciences, plant sciences, and the neurosciences.

In addition, we seek to leverage our investments to the next level and propose three new thrust areas that will enable Penn State to be recognized as a leader in life science research. Each of these areas was identified based on potential for being:

  • Distinctive – establishing a unique niche based on existing strengths
  • Transformative – will both advance the science and have significant impact
  • Catalytic – showing high levels of leverage to help drive innovation
  • Collaborative – promoting synergy and interdisciplinary research

Thrust 1: Data to Insight and Innovation (D2I2 – “D-two-I-two”)

Opportunity

The rapid increase in the production and use of large, complex, and diverse datasets has fundamentally transformed research in the life sciences. However, even while becoming data-rich and data-driven, the ability of researchers to locate, analyze, and use these data is limited due to a lack of access to relevant software, tools, and expertise. The D2I2 initiative seeks to make Penn State the go-to place for developing and providing access to tools and technologies that assist in the management, analysis, and dissemination of biological data.

Objective

To promote data-driven discovery with participation of scientists from multiple disciplines focused on the same issue. To test hypotheses in silico, and develop a cross scale understanding of the processes of life that reach from genes to society and in so doing connect scientists and others with diverse approaches. To explore data through visualization, simulation and in silico experimentation, and then identify the gaps and needs that result in successful grant support. To enable insight, drive innovation, and provide science-based solutions and a rational framework for the development of new policies.

Action

Our initial focus will be to spur data-driven insight and innovation in areas of genome sciences, infectious disease, and the neurosciences. Specifically, our goals will be to:

  • Strategically hire research and tenure-line faculty who have expertise and skills in the broad aspects of biological informatics relating to systems genomics, infectious disease, and biological image analysis
  • Strategically hire cyber-engineers with skills in data handling, visualization, parameter estimation, and simulation
  • Provide quality workspace and resources for researchers
  • Improve graduate curricular for life scientists to acquire better skills in data visualization, storage, and handling

Impacts

  • The development and access to cutting-edge methods, software, and tools for data processing, storage, analysis, integration, and visualization
  • The development of a critical mass of faculty with expertise in enabling the exploration of data-driven science with tools while elevating the general competencies in data usage across the life sciences research workforce
  • Increased competitiveness for extramural research funding
  • Increased collaborations across the life science disciplines that strengthen the bonds with social, information, environmental, and materials sciences
  • Enhanced reputation of Penn State as the go-to place for life sciences data

Thrust 2: Promoting Resilience and Adaptation in Biological Systems (PReAdapt)

Opportunity

The increasing pace of anthropogenic and environmental change are having a profound impact on the health of humans, agriculture and ecosystems. The PReAdapt initiative seeks to understand and mitigate against the consequences of selection that arise through anthropogenic and environmental insults. Specifically, we aim to facilitate the development of novel approaches for the adaptation of plants, animals, and humans to climate change and for mitigating the health impacts associated with environmental disruptions such as pollutants, toxins, and antimicrobial agents.

Objective

To build capacity and establish precedence through targeted hires and seed funding. Specifically, we will work to examine and solve issues related to antimicrobial resistance, cancer chemotherapy, vaccine deployment, and plant adaption to environmental stress. We shall seek appointment of both theoretical and empirical researchers who address these issues using an evolutionary framework.

Action

  • Our focus will be to lever new investments in key areas of strategic interest – plant sciences, cancer, infectious disease, and toxicology. Specifically, our goals will be to:
  • Develop an Institute for Ecology and Evolution that brings our strengths in the field together and acts as a vehicle to link climate change and environmental insults with the life sciences, and in so doing, drive the larger vision for PreAdapt
  • Identify, develop, and support high-impact interdisciplinary and evolutionary projects that will spur innovation in mitigating the evolution of drug resistance, insecticide resistance in insects, and improved resilience and adaptation of plants to climate change
  • Recruit faculty in cross-cutting themes, in particular, pathogen evolution, adaptation to stress (water, thermal & invasive species), and human adaptation
  • Develop a global presence with strong links to African and Asian research universities

Impacts

  • Recognition of the interplay between global change and life sciences solutions in an evolutionary context
  • Increased competitiveness for extramural research funding
  • Increased collaboration of faculty in the life sciences with those in the environmental, social, and information sciences
  • Enhanced reputation of Penn State as a leader and go-to place for high-impact research for funding agencies and a source of science-based information for policy makers

Thrust 3: Convergence of Biological, Engineering, and Materials Sciences (CoBEAM)

Opportunity

“Convergence”, or the integration of the biological, engineering, and physical sciences, is leading to what is considered to be the “third revolution” in the life sciences, and follows in the footsteps of molecular biology and genome sciences. Now we see a paradigm shift in how scientific research is organized and conducted through interdisciplinary collaborations. The integration of these distinctive disciplines and cultures is helping to drive innovation and create entirely new approaches to address some of society’s most pressing problems. Penn State has a unique opportunity to be a leader in this revolution.

Objective

The primary aim is to build on our success in the Millennium Science Complex and establish precedence in key strategic areas through targeted hires and seed funding. Specifically, we will work closely with colleges (notably CoE, ECoS and EMS) and other institutes (MRI and ICS) to stimulate the development of novel devices, imaging tools, and biologically inspired materials that will help transform life, engineering, and physical sciences research, and spur innovation.

Action

Specific goals will include:

  • To work with faculty and develop a plan for a Center for Convergence Science and Engineering that sits at the interface between the Huck, MRI, and CoE
  • To identify, develop, and support high-impact interdisciplinary and transformative projects that will spur innovation through the development of novel materials and devices for improving disease diagnostics, biomedical imaging, and bio-inspired materials
  • To seek targeted hires of faculty in strategic areas such as magnetic resonance imaging, tissue engineering, and biologically-inspired materials
  • To develop a pipeline of convergence projects that could lead to the submission and winning of ERCs and large NIH Center grants
  • To support curricular innovations that will promote graduate and undergraduate education in convergence science

Impacts

  • The development of a Center for Convergence Science and Engineering will help bring together dynamic teams of research scientists to build capacity and develop a critical mass of faculty aligned along a translational pathway
  • Increased competitiveness for extramural research funding
  • Increased collaborations with the life sciences
  • Increased opportunities for collaboration with industry
  • Enhanced reputation and visibility of Penn State as a leader and go-to place for convergence research by key stakeholders including funding agencies, academic and industrial partners, and policy makers

Building Discovery, Collaboration, and Capability

Retaining academic excellence and precedence while building to the next level in a resource-constrained environment requires improved operational efficiencies, a focus on achieving key strategic objectives, while ensuring buy-in from all. We shall continue to build our team structure and core strengths.

Leadership Team and Capacity

Opportunity

To develop new initiatives and capabilities, promote institutional excellence, realize greater operational efficiencies, and develop new leadership capacity.

Objective

To maximize the impact of the Huck in facilitating research excellence through the development of effective and efficient cross-functional teams. Specifically, we will seek to:

  • Appoint new associate directors to serve in a leadership capacity for the development of new and existing opportunities
  • Develop representation and structure within the Institute of Plant Sciences
  • Develop a program of “In-reach” that will facilitate and enable faculty and students to get better access to cutting edge tools and technologies available within the Huck
  • Develop clearly articulated metrics, transparent processes, and a continual improvement strategy for making the Huck work efficiently and effectively

Improving our Core Instrumentation

Opportunity

Technology in the life sciences has been developing at a rapid rate and we need to ensure that we have the state-of-the-art instruments available to all to complement our emerging research strategies and support our existing core programs. Common to all is the need to develop the data to innovation strategy with an effective pipeline of data transfer from instruments through to data interrogation.

Objective

To ensure that we have the best and most efficient instruments particularly in the core areas of genome sciences, proteomics, metabolomics, imaging, plant sciences, and infectious disease. Specific goals include to:

  • Develop seamless links between instruments and data analysis for quality control, validation, error estimation, and data integration
  • Build a live-cell high-resolution imaging capability with fluorescent and biological imaging of gene expression in living cells and tissues
  • Develop capacity for multi-modal imaging including magnetic resonance, fluorescence, and electron microscopy and so bridge the micro and nano worlds
  • Build on our existing capabilities to produce biological materials for downstream “omic” analysis
  • Develop novel genome engineering capabilities at the cellular and organismal level

Transforming Graduate Education

Opportunity

Graduate students are an important component of the academic research process, and we need to continually improve their training and experiences. We shall continue to build on what has been achieved over the past five years.

Objective

We wish to continue and specifically widen the links across the life sciences with departments to reduce internal competition. Specific goals include to:

  • To develop stronger links between the Huck and departmental programs, and increase flexibility that helps the students and advisors
  • To seek shared teaching with departmental programs and, where suitable, shared recruitment
  • To seek more training grants associated with each of the graduate programs in the Huck

Global Engagement and Impact

Opportunity

Science is an international operation, and since Penn State is a significant player on the global stage, we wish to develop strong links with other universities that excel in the life sciences. We feel these should be strong relationships which build multiple faculty between the two locations, shared funding, graduate students and opportunities.

Over the past five years, the Huck has built strong links with two universities in particular: Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science & Technology in Tanzania, and Fudan University in China.

Objective

To make Penn State and the life sciences an important part of Penn State’s global program. Specifically to build shared research programs with both Africa and Asia and ensure PhDs are equivalent between Penn State and other universities. Specifically, we propose to:

  • Build graduate education opportunities with specific partners in Asia, Africa, and South America
  • Build joint research opportunities with collaborative funding that play to our lead strengths in interdisciplinary science
  • Provide opportunities for undergraduates to become more involved in working with issues that affect the everyday lives of vulnerable people

Entrepreneurship and Links with Industry

Opportunity

Penn State is in the process of revitalizing its innovation engine and becoming industry-friendly and proactive in research commercialization. This is driven by recognition that Pennsylvania ranks poorly in terms of entrepreneurial activity and the need for an improvement in research commercialization. We now seek to leverage our investments with co-hires by helping faculty and students translate their discoveries into technologies and companies that help with innovations in agriculture, medicine, food science, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Objective

We seek to partner with colleges to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem at Penn State that leverages advances in basic science research and provide creative solutions to real-world problems that transform individual, societal, and ecosystem health. Our specific goals are to:

  • Identify, develop and support promising ideas that can spur innovation
  • Develop strategic relationships with industry stakeholders to support scientific advances, translational research, and innovation
  • Work with the colleges and institutes to help develop an I-Corp node and an entrepreneurial ecosystem at Penn State

Impacts

  • Strategic relationships with key industry partners
  • SBIR / STTR / I-Corps grant proposals
  • Technology licenses, start-up businesses
  • Faculty and students with entrepreneurial skills
  • New or enhanced curricula and training opportunities

Threats / Opportunities

The limitations imposed by the faculty tenure and promotion system in a rapidly changing funding landscape has not impacted the University or Huck as yet, but could well become a big issue. How do we focus on developing and maintaining critical mass of research excellence while encouraging interdisciplinary research over and above this? Can we capitalize on the institutes for reframing the tenure debate and changing the faculty hire and promotion model in a rapidly evolving federal funding landscape?

Insufficient mass to compete nationally

  • Success at the University level depends not only on the ability of each individual to obtain grant support but also an ability to attract multiple PI grants and, in particular, center grants. This requires a sufficient number of excellent workers in any one field so we must ensure we build the capacity to succeed at this level and at the same time ensure we have the leadership structure to ensure growth.

    Reduced federal funding
    • Relative funding support from NIH and NSF has fallen and resulted in reduced support for PIs. More alarming is the trend of increased delay between initial submission and successful support that means that even the best grants are not supported for several cycles.

Indirect costs and infrastructure support

Space crisis

  • While the space crisis within the University has grown with the urgency of renovations it is unlikely that the crisis will be relieved and could limit new developments. We need a change in the way we think and allocate space that seeks high quality, flexible shared space with a significant change in the mindsets of PIs and workers.

Shared equipment and facilities

  • Shared facilities and equipment are in constant need of upgrading and investment. On the one hand we seek new instruments and we must ensure we have cutting edge facilities to support PIs and on the other must consider when we shall outsource are analysis and close some levels of support.

Collegiate and departmental disciplinary silos and misaligned interests

Individual researchers do not always consider the inter-college links when they are reviewed within colleges, and playing an intra-college approach can benefit them over inter-college approaches. For example, there are some opportunities within the CoM to build stronger links across campuses such as the Regional Medical School; but there is also a desire to maintain distinctness within colleges, so some Institutes (Diabetes and Obesity, Neuroscience) which could be served best with inter-college affiliation are concerned that this may weaken their status within their own college.

  • Paucity of faculty who wish to serve as next generation of leaders / disincentives to serving in an institutional leadership capacity, and lack of institutional strategy for faculty leadership development

  • Institutional risk aversion

Metrics

 



Core competency

Measures of Success

 

Faculty Co-hires

Personal and professional growth and

satisfaction in an environment characterized by mutual respect, trust, and open communication

  • Quality and diversity of faculty

  • Success in faculty recruitment / retention

  • External recognition

  • Satisfaction surveys

Centers of Research Excellence

An internationally recognized faculty engaged in basic and translational interdisciplinary research with high impact

  • Faculty productivity, research accomplishments

  • Collaborative research activity

  • Translational activities and impacts

  • Peer recognition

Graduate Programs

Student-centered interdisciplinary graduate programs that prepare an individual for life-long professional and personal success

  • Quality and quantity of students

  • Student achievement and placement

  • Curricular innovation

  • Peer recognition / rankings

Facilities

State-of-the-art laboratories and instrumentation that enable high-impact collaborative research and training

 

  • Quality and availability of collaborative workspaces and enabling technologies

  • Competitiveness for ext. funding

  • Impact on recruitment / retention

  • Satisfaction surveys

Internal Operations

Effective and efficient processes that support faculty scholarly activities and promote student recruitment and learning

  • Operational effectiveness and efficiency

  • Faculty and staff productivity

  • Quality of decision making and budgeting processes

  • Satisfaction surveys

External Relationships

Reputation for excellence and leadership in collaborative research and training with key stakeholders and international partners

  • Research and training collaborations

  • International engagement

  • Industry engagement

  • Development success

  • Reputational surveys