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Blue-ribbon advisory team helps Cornell restructure life sciences

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- Given the monumental task of completing the most ambitious project in Cornell University's history -- the $650 million New Life Sciences Initiative (NLSI) -- it makes sense that decision makers would want all the help they could get. 

One unique source of wisdom comes from the External Life Sciences Advisory Council, a blue-ribbon team of five scientific leaders from prominent institutions around the country. With insights on advances in the sciences, the team has the expertise to address subject areas within the biological sciences offered at Cornell. They also complement a local Cornell faculty group, the Internal Life Sciences Advisory Council. 

Cornell faculty members say the university needs these advisers, given that the NLSI represents a new direction not only in how the university organizes across disciplines, but also for the life sciences as a whole. 

"The council members are aware of the rapid changes in the field of biology as well as Cornell's potential and can provide guidance for making the difficult decisions," says Gerald Fink, one of the external council members, a professor of genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a founder of the Whitehead Institute. Fink has a long association with Cornell, as he joined the faculty as assistant professor of genetics in 1967, served as professor of genetics from 1976 to 1979 and as professor of biochemistry from 1979 to 1982.

Back in December 1998, then Cornell President Hunter Rawlings had the foresight to reorganize the basic life sciences by dismantling the division of biological sciences as an organizing principle and instituting departments to allow for easier communication across disciplines. The change was essential, as genomics had profoundly shifted the way scientists research life. Says Kraig Adler, professor of biology and vice provost for life sciences: "The Life Sciences Initiative is our institutional response to changes in contemporary life sciences brought about by the genomics revolution." 

"In the 1950s and '60s, we had a revolution in molecular and structural biology," notes Steve Kresovich, the Cornell professor of plant sciences who will take the reins from Adler as vice provost for life sciences in July. "People from other disciplines became involved in molecular and structural biology. They started to ask how physics, engineering and chemistry could help solve key biological questions. Now, we are in the middle of a new revolution in genomics." 

Indeed, scientists are comparing genes across species and across individuals. In medicine, for example, genomics research one day may lead to drugs tailored for individual needs, as determined by someone's unique genetic makeup. In plant sciences, plants may be bred to be more adapted to drought or richer in a nutrient, such as vitamin A. And the genomes of different species, like those of the chimpanzee and the human, can now be compared. Research directions and possibilities are countless. 

In order to facilitate a shift of this magnitude, the two advisory councils offer feedback to the provost and the president. 

While the 16 prominent faculty members on the internal council meet once a month to evaluate current programs and to strategize ways to bring the NLSI to fruition, the external board has met at Cornell twice, once in September 2002 and again in June 2004. During these visits, they met with members of the internal council, new faculty recruits and deans, among others, and later sent a report to the administration. Cornell decision makers have used some of the advice to refocus the direction of the NLSI.

The external group, initially chosen by Rawlings after consulting with senior faculty members, includes, in addition to Fink: external council chair Harold Varmus, Nobel prize winner for studies on the genetic basis of cancer, former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; Robert Langer, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at MIT and chairman of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Science Board, the FDA's highest advisory board; and Chris Sommerville, professor of biological sciences and director of the Carnegie Institute of Plant Research at Stanford University. A fifth member, Pamela Matson, a biogeochemistry professor at Stanford University and a Macarthur fellow, recently stepped down and soon will be replaced. 

More than anything, the external panel provides an outside perspective. 

"The fact that they are external may make them less biased in their evaluations," says Andrew Bass, professor of neurobiology and behavior and chair of the Internal Life Sciences Advisory Council. "They are a great sounding board, and they are prominent, leading scientists in their fields." 

In September 2002, the external council made five recommendations. These related to recruiting senior faculty researchers who are also leaders; planning space in the new Life Science Technology Building; suggesting an ongoing process of strategic planning and review; developing an environmental sciences initiative; enhancing review of candidates for appointment and promotion; and nurturing existing faculty. 

In the June 2004 report, the external council's main recommendations related to the organization of graduate student recruitment and training programs. 

"Cornell's challenge is to identify a niche that takes advantage of its history and potential," says Fink. "Key to meeting this challenge is identifying and empowering an energetic, wise and visionary scientific leader who can help direct this initiative." 

The external council also noted that the university was not adequately investing in molecular and cell biology. 

"There were many at Cornell who contended that we were underinvesting in these areas, but when the external council made this observation, it caused us to consider it more seriously," says Adler. 

The university responded by creating the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, which will be housed in the Life Science Technology Building, which is scheduled for completion in 2007. The university currently is seeking a director for the institute and has already started hiring faculty. So far, Cornell has hired 48 new faculty members for the NLSI, with the intention to eventually hire a total of 120 new researchers. 

In addition, the internal council recognized that while Cornell has been traditionally strong in plant genomics, it has less strength in areas of mammalian genomics and, therefore, plans to bolster that focus area with new hires. Recently, John Schimenti was hired as director of Cornell's Center for Vertebrate Genomics. Schimenti hailed from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and serves on prominent panels with the National Science Foundation and NIH.

There also exists a third entity called the Cornell Life Sciences Advisory Board (CLSAB), which includes some 50 highly accomplished Cornell alumni; parents; and corporate, financial and institutional leaders from around the country. Headed by Cornell trustee Sam Fleming '62, this third board works in close association with the provost and the deans and faculty of the colleges involved in the New Life Sciences Initiative. The CLSAB aims to build Cornell's life sciences education and research. It also works to expand the university's relationships with Cornell alumni and friends, corporate executives, government leaders, and venture capitalists and other investors who share an interest in, and a commitment to, the goals of the initiative. This board meets annually on campus.

All in all, those involved believe the advisory system is working and serving Cornell's purposes. 

"We ought to continue having an external council for the long run," Adler says. "They give their unvarnished, honest opinions, and they have no vested interest here, other than having an interest in our success."