By: Peter Hudson & Associate Directors
Over the past ten years, the life sciences have changed beyond all recognition; we now have the technology to undertake the full genomic sequences of every individual, to understand why the outcome of medical intervention varies between individuals, to track a pandemic in real time, and to genetically manipulate plants for food security. Our scientific instruments are producing a veritable tsunami of data across multiple scales that provides remarkable insights into the very processes of life itself. Penn State plans to be an integral part of this life sciences revolution, undertaking the research and placing it within the translational pipeline to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship. This State of the Huck document provides an update as we finish the spring semester in 2016.
Over the past 10 years Penn State has retained precedence through the process of focused cluster hires in genomics and infectious diseases.
The priority is always recruiting and retaining the best faculty and they require support with good graduate students and instrumentation.
We have restructured our molecular and cellular biology program and this is on the path to excellence. New training grants are encouraging more student training and we continue to help support our programs.
Developing support for faculty with cutting edge instrumentation is imperative and we are investing in instruments that will expand our imaging capability and integrate these with those used in materials sciences.
We have new hires in our main areas of interest including a new initiative in the microbiome.
We are in interesting times at Penn State with a new strategic plan and the launch of a campaign. The Huck vision aligns nicely with the University campaign in building global health security, biomedical health sciences and digital innovation.
Achieving everything would not be possible without the wonderful vision and endowment left to us by the Huck family.
Achievements over the past decade
We set ourselves goals ten years ago to retain precedence in genomics and bioinformatics, to grow infectious disease research and to do this in a way that linked from protein to pandemic so that we were different from the other infectious disease groups. We also wanted to make sure plant sciences excelled and that we were flexible enough to move into novel areas like metabolomics or the microbiome when the opportunity arose. Our approach was to appoint excellent faculty and use the cluster hire approach.
The Huck team has worked well to achieve these goals. We initiated and ran a genomics cluster hire with more than 20 new faculty, and this placed Penn State at center stage in this fast developing and important field and highlights the power of the cluster hire in these type of situations. This was successful since we already had a presence; we just upped the game in a step function and the academic world paid attention. We did the same with infectious disease faculty and brought in a slew of exceptional talent that populated our new Millennium Science Complex. For the University therefore, the cluster hire approach has been a great method to use when retaining and building excellence. It requires courage, a great chair of the search committee, and strong partnership with departments, colleges and institutes – and it can be transformative.
Faculty and graduate investments
Any university is the integral of its intellectual capability and appointing and retaining the best faculty leads to excellence and as such should be the primary investment for the future of the University. The academic business is a strange one indeed – we appoint great faculty who attract great students, train them so they become highly successful, and then they go off and provide leadership, make lots of money, and 30 years later we ask them to support their alma mater. Not only have our hiring strategies encouraged excellence but also built capacity and over the past decade more than doubled the number of co-hires with more than 100 faculty.
This last year, our faculty cohires have come from a number of thematic areas where we seek to grow excellence and teams of interacting people. We are very much focused on global health issues and have a new hire coming to join Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (BMB) who has expertise in biosafety level 3 pathogens, and we hope will be joined by a second appointment in Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences. We also continue to be heavily involved in the search to develop the convergence of life and materials sciences. We currently have offers out to two faculty who will be in Biomedical Engineering, and another offer about to go. We have been searching for new faculty in evolutionary risk assessment with three people we have been chasing this year; we have offers out to two of them, and we are really excited that Maciej Boni will be joining us from Oxford and Wellcome. Maciej studies a range of things including influenza and malaria evolution and intervention, working primarily in Vietnam, and will help expand our global health initiatives. We are partnering with College of Ag to build broad capability in the microbiome and have offers out with the expectation that this search will reach out to other colleges in the next year. We have also been involved in some genomic hires, including Etya Amsalem who will join Entomology and BMB in July to investigate genomic and environmental issues in bees and will be an active member of the Center for Pollinator Research. We also have an offer out to a computational bioinformatics person who will join our exceptional group in Wartik. Next year we plan to extend the microbiome search, infectious disease search, and maybe a structural biology search, as well. We are always open to proposals that build our excellence in life sciences.
We engage in other less glamorous yet critical aspects of faculty recruitment. We routinely meet with candidates for departmental hires, who are not Huck co-hires, to explain the integrative life sciences landscape at Penn State, discuss their instrumentation needs, and generally help the university recruit top scientists. We frequently supplement start-up packages with seed grants (Huck bucks) that support work of new faculty in core instrumentation facilities.
Investing in faculty is so rewarding and productive, but this is not enough, we need to provide these faculty with an intellectual ecosystem in which to grow and support them with instrumentation and graduate students. Faculty need exceptional graduate students, and our task is to really work to get the students recruited and paired-up with a great advisor. Each graduate program is the intellectual environment in which the student lives, and the advisor’s lab, their scientific family. A successful program requires student mass, diversity, and a good cadre of productive faculty as advisors, coupled with sound leadership with a passion for graduate training.
Our restructuring of the graduate programs has been very helpful in this respect, and the new Molecular and Cellular Integrative Biosciences (MCIBS) program is on the path to excellence. They are certainly identifying the best potential students although we are still having issues in getting the numbers of high quality students to sign with us. We are analyzing the data and our leadership seeks methods of growing our standing. The Bioinformatics and Genomics program has an objective to become a stand-alone graduate program and increase its mass towards 50 students. In this respect, the two training grants in this area, coupled with great support from the Graduate School and the deans, have allowed this to happen, and with our excellent faculty and leadership we are progressing well. In Neuroscience, a group of faculty are concerned that we need stronger support for the cognitive and behavioral scientists, and there is currently a discussion on looking at options including a dual title degree in this area. Faculty who would like to contribute to this discussion should reach out to Troy Ott, our leader in the Huck graduate programs who has been driving all these issues forward in an effective and charming manner. We also want to emphasize that our other graduate programs, including Plant Biology, Ecology, and Integrative & Biomedical Physiology, are all doing remarkably well and we are just thrilled to see the excellent leadership, training grants, and student involvement. At the same time, the Master of Biotechnology program, under the exceptional leadership of Loida Escote-Carlson, is still one of the most impressive professional masters programs in this area. Finally, we are proud that the Huck continues to embrace shared leadership and have increased the role of our students in activities with the Huck Graduate Student Advisory Group.
The recent development in life sciences instrumentation capability has been nothing less than astonishing and we feel the availability of these instruments for our faculty is imperative. Our primary focus just now is on the remarkable developments in imaging and how we can build a world-class facility that will embrace and integrate the instruments in both materials and life sciences. There are many instruments we should be sharing, and yet the cultures in the two areas differ so this is a challenging but potentially highly fruitful opportunity. Part of the excitement, from our perspective, are the remarkable changes in resolution that are allowing us to see what is happening at just a few nanometers – so we can now see structures we were once told would not be possible. We have our eyes set on a new Cryo-EM and a stochastic optical resolution microscope (STORM) that will help our faculty and students obtain a new perspective in many aspects of biology.
Fermentation is moving into a temporary location later this year when they demolish Fenske Lab, and together with X-Ray Crystallography, have developed multiple new contracts with industry – a pattern we seek to encourage. We have moved our Cytometry Facility out of the Microscopy Facility and hired a new director. Metabolomics is seeking upgrades on instruments with a new Orbitrap mass spec, and is building stronger links using the NMR in Chemistry. Genomics will be getting a new Pac Bio DNA sequencer where they can undertake long single molecule reads that solve problems of verification and genome assembly. We also have a new core facility policy that is helping the workflow and financial aspects in a much more effective way. Particular thanks to Jim Marden, Nigel Deighton and our faculty governance groups that are working to keep us at the cutting edge.
We recently initiated and directed Huck seed grant programs to support new research initiatives of ~ 40 PIs for work using the instrumentation facilities. This included a co-funded program for faculty in HHD and grants co-funded with the Materials Research Institute for new teams and projects melding life & materials science. Over the longer term, we have been stimulating research via either many small seed grants or fewer larger grants targeting high-risk, high-reward projects.
Challenges for Research at Penn State
The University is currently at a most interesting juncture. We have just completed one of the most intense and careful strategic plans the University has ever undertaken, and President Barron has shown us how he will use this as a foundation to initiate a new campaign for support. He has already indicated that this campaign will embrace energy, health, digital and global engagement, and provide funds for transformative experiences for the undergraduates. Much of this plan aligns very nicely with the Huck strategic plan, and so over the next couple of years we will align our activities with those of the campaign to reach our research objectives.
In the health arena, we have two major pushes over the next few years. The first is in global health security, where we seek to place Penn State at the very heart of the global disease challenges by becoming the academic integrator to disease threats. We want to build capability in infectious disease research in the developing world, and we seek to identify the projects that are needed and to obtain the real-time epidemiological and strain data that can be provided to many researchers in the field as new epidemics emerge. This brings together our different areas of excellence including infectious disease, genomics, social sciences, and policy, to shape the way we control and reduce the threat from the emerging disease burden. Vivek Kapur’s leadership here has been truly fantastic, and we now have the excellent Pell Labs up and running for level 3 pathogens. This includes exciting work on a range of pathogens including studies of Zika virus. We are also forging a good partnership with the Penn State Applied Research Lab and industrial partners to develop real expertise in biosecurity with the idea of developing a new Huck-associated Applied Biosecurity Research Lab.
As part of building our global reach in infectious disease we have been developing close links with a number of excellent international universities. At the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology we are helping with 20 graduate students and have grants exceeding $10 million. These connections are showing us what we can achieve by building capacity and capability “within country,” so we not only successfully build within country but build a network of young researchers that we hope will sustain global collaboration into the future. We are particularly pleased with a Gates Foundation grant that is funding and educating predominantly post-graduate women to link with students from northern universities and build a network of collaboration. One of the biggest challenges globally is to educate more women, and in doing so, we know this will lead to reduced birth rates, less population pressure, and a sustainable world.
The other major area is to build our connections between biomedical research that is being undertaken at University Park, in Hershey, and at the Regional Medical Campus. In recent years, this has been difficult and frustrating, but with fresh new leadership in the medical school and the willingness and energy of the deans in HHD and ECOS together with colleagues in SSRI, we are developing plans to take this to a much higher level. We ran a faculty retreat and then developed a plan that will help President Baron raise funds for health research. This is truly exciting. We have been working closely with Susan McHale to push for stronger links between the social and life sciences, and we plan to do more in this area over the next few years.
One of the research challenges at Penn State is that while our overall expenditure has remained stable, we are losing our relative ranking in research expenditures, falling from 9th to 20th over the past 10 years. The data suggest that to get back to our historic average ranking of 9 – just about where we think we should rightly be - we need to grow our annual research expenditures by about $200m. Our preliminary analyses suggest that funding growth in biomedical and life sciences is key - and programs such as our new global health initiative are well positioned to bring in significant funds over the next few years by capitalizing on our unique capabilities in areas such as infectious diseases, genomics and bioinformatics. To accomplish this however, we will need to consider developing new business models and an institutional commitment to making us more competitive in winning large grants.
Another challenge we face is recognition. Quite simply, our scientific achievement and quality is at a higher level than is recognized by media, policy makers, and others. While many of our faculty are undertaking phenomenal work, we need better ways of showing and influencing what we are doing. We have been talking with Dean Easterling and VP Sharkey about this in detail, and we are trying to see how we can improve this recognition through summit meetings and the production of policy white papers. You will hear more about this in due course.
So the next 10 years?
We do feel that we have made contributions to help the life sciences at Penn State, and couldn’t have achieved this without the great support and energy of our associate directors and the everyone included in Team Huck.
We are looking at ways and means of restructuring the Huck so that we can achieve more, so that the life sciences can excel and our faculty have the support they need. We believe we can work closely with the University Campaign, build global health security, improve recognition, and build the bridgeheads to form a stronger connection in biomedical and health sciences. Before Lloyd Huck passed away, he worked closely with the Huck team and our Kitchen cabinet to envision a new way to do biomedical sciences. Since then, Lloyd’s endowment to the Huck has helped us achieve many of the things that are realizing that vision and provide transformative solutions. Dottie and the Huck established a special fund to support graduate students with research innovations grants, travel grants, special Huck fellowships for outstanding students, and so much more. We have also established special endowed chairs and young investigator awards, and we have given the first special award for outstanding research to Jeff Peters in VBS. We must recognize the phenomenal vision and legacy that Lloyd and Dottie Huck gave us to do this. Their generous support has given us the flexibility to achieve so much, and so our final thank you must be to Lloyd & Dottie’s family for their support of life sciences.