Deirdre Meldrum has spent her career building bridges between disciplines.
An electrical engineer who has established multi-disciplinary research centers, received major grants, and conducted research in genomics, Meldrum is innovative, energetic, and unafraid of challenges.
In short, she is exactly the type of person Arizona State University is looking for in a college dean.
Not that her role will be confined to administration. Meldrum’s new job as dean of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, like her approach to science, involves a blending of interests and responsibilities.
In fact, come January, she will as likely be found in the laboratory as in the office.
Meldrum, who founded the multi-disciplinary Microscale Life Sciences Center (MLSC) at the University of Washington in Seattle, has brought the center with her to ASU.
The MLSC will become a part of the ASU Biodesign Institute’s new Center for EcoGenomics, enabling the new dean to continue her research on automation and genomics.
The MLSC itself is a major contribution to ASU’s science programs. The research institution recently won the largest individual grant in the university’s history—a five-year, $18 million grant to continue in its role as one of the national Centers for Excellence in Genomic Science (CEGS).
A CEGS is awarded by the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to support the creation of interdisciplinary research teams to develop pioneering genomic research, using the data and technologies of the Human Genome Project.
But perhaps more important than the research center are the vision and drive that Meldrum herself will contribute to the science community at ASU.
In the midst of preparing for her new role as dean, Meldrum took a few minutes to talk with us about her background, research, motivation, and hopes for her future at ASU.
How did you, as a civil and electrical engineer, find your way into biology and genomics?
When I was working on my Ph.D. at Stanford on robotics and control systems, it was in the early days of the Human Genome Project, and I used to have conversations with another grad student about the need for automation in genomics. When I went to the University of Washington, Leroy Hood was recruited there from Caltech to start a new department of molecular biotechnology. So I went and met with him and other people in that department and applied for a training grant with the National Institutes of Health. It was called the Special Emphasis Research Career Award, and the purpose of the award was to apply different areas of expertise to the Human Genome Project. My goal was to apply robotics and automation to the project.
So that was a five year grant that got me into genomics and enabled me to have time to train in genomics. I worked in the laboratories of Maynard Olson and Debbie Nickerson, professors in molecular biotechnology, and did all the steps by hand for DNA sequencing—from getting the sample all the way through the sequencing. I learned how biologists currently work with problems and thought about ways to automate them, and then started working on research projects to develop an automating system for DNA sequencing.
How have these interests affected your career’s path?
Well I guess, in one sense, you could say it’s totally changed my direction, but it’s also taken it along another trajectory that still takes advantage of my earlier training. It takes what I’ve learned in electrical engineering—and even civil engineering—and lets me apply it in new ways. It’s opened up a whole new world of biology and new research problems.
In your view, what is the value in crossing disciplines? Would you encourage others to do the same?
I highly encourage it, and that’s one of the main focuses of the Fulton School of Engineering. When you cross disciplines, you first need to be strong in something and have expertise in a particular area or field. Then when you work at the boundaries of your discipline, that’s where a lot of the problems are. So what you’re working on can enable other disciplines. For example, technologies we develop in engineering enable biologists to answer new questions. But it’s a two way street, because the biologists have problems and challenges that push us to develop new technologies.
Why did you choose to leave University of Washington to come to Arizona State? What factored into your decision?
First of all, I wasn’t looking for a change. I was happy at the University of Washington. It was really the leadership of Michael Crow and the other leadership at Arizona State that were huge factors in my decision. When I visited, there was this energy here that’s unique. I don’t feel that energy when I go to other universities. This is a very vibrant, energetic community with a lot of really excellent faculty and students wanting to do new things and advance in a variety of ways. The Biodesign Institute was also very attractive. George Poste, the director, really recruited some excellent centers, and I’m looking forward to working with them as well.
You will continue your work as a researcher while also acting as dean of engineering and director of the new Center for EcoGenomics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. How do you plan to balance these roles?
The person that will be working with me very closely in the dean’s office is the executive dean, Paul Johnson. He’s very experienced with ASU and is really excellent. So far we’ve worked together really well, so I think we can form a very strong team that will enable all of the things to get done for the school of engineering. I’ll have to be careful how I balance my time, making sure I’m allocating time both to the school of engineering as well as to my research in the Biodesign Institute. So I’ll probably have allocated hours that I’ll spend at both places. I’m also recruiting a lab manager and researchers at Biodesign that will help me make that possible.
What is the focus of the Microscale Life Sciences Center?
The primary focus is to develop microscale systems so that we can perform multi-parameter analysis of any single cell. So for example, one thing that we’re studying is inflammation, and how inflammation works, and that relates to heart disease. And we also study cancer—we’re trying to understand why a cell chooses to live or die, and how that relates to whatever the disease is.
How will the center benefit biosciences at ASU, and around the state?
I see the center contributing as one piece of the whole bioscience effort in Arizona. I’ve seen Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, which is impressive, and I see that it’s been making a lot of progress in the last four years. So we will be contributing to that. In terms of ASU, I see the center as a vehicle for leveraging a lot of different types of research—research in electronics, informatics, optics, materials, nanotechnology, and so on. I’m already starting to do that now with some of the researchers in the Biodesign Institute, and I anticipate doing that with others at ASU. Long term, we hope to develop new technologies that can be commercialized. We also, hopefully, will get some understanding of the medical aspects of research, so that we can work to solve various diseases—or at least help in improving them.
What do you think will be your most significant challenges?
Well, all of us need resources. I know President Crow has been very successful in getting a lot of resources for Arizona State, and Arizona as a state has been doing better than a lot of other states in terms of support for universities and research. But having resources is the key. Ira Fulton has been very generous in supporting the school of engineering and ASU as a whole. Without that kind of support, we can’t move forward. So we need support to really be able to attract the top-notch faculty and students that we want here.
What do you hope to accomplish during your time at ASU? What are your biggest priorities?
I think the top priority that will enable us to get where we’re headed is to recruit the best faculty and students that we can, and then with those people continue to build a research program with a transdisciplinary environment where students and faculty can really work in a lot of different areas. Because at ASU there are incredible programs, and if we really work at transdisciplinary efforts, we can really make a difference.