Bioscience

UA Regents Professor and geneticist charts course for BIO5

February 23, 2005

By Flinn Foundation

This past fall Vicki Chandler, the newly appointed director of the Institute for Biomedical Science and Biotechnology (IBSB) at the University of Arizona, rescued the up-and-coming research center from its own cumbersome name and rechristened it BIO5, a decidedly catchier moniker. The new branding effort is also more descriptive of the interdisciplinary institute’s five focal points–medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, basic science, and engineering. But a name change isn’t nearly all that Chandler has accomplished since officially taking the reins of BIO5 last July.

Chandler, who grew up in California, received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley and her doctorate in the same subject at the nearby University of California, San Francisco. After a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, Chandler joined the faculty at the University of Oregon for a 12-year tenure. The bulk of her research has been in regulatory gene expression as it presents in species of maize.

In 1997 Chandler came to UA, where she was named a Regents Professor in the plant sciences department in 2003. Chandler is one of only 19 professors at UA to be awarded a distinguished membership in the National Academy of Sciences, to which she was elected in 2002.

But in July of last year, she accepted an entirely different sort of honor: Having served as interim director following inaugural director Tom Baldwin’s departure, Chandler was given official charge of the university’s emerging Institute for Biomedical Science and Biotechnology, and immediately got down to putting her stamp on the institution.

Like a figurative bicycle wheel, BIO5 is structured around a hub of core faculty researchers and state of the art lab space. Thirty of the institute’s primary researchers will be housed in the new $65 million Thomas Keating Biosciences Research Building being built on the Tucson campus. BIO5’s spokes extend to nearly every area of life science education and research at the UA, including recruiting faculty, building databases for graduate researchers, leveraging state and national grant dollars, and promoting interdisciplinary projects through an awards program.

Already, the BIO5 collaborative and interdisciplinary approach seems to be paying off. In the three years since the institute got its start, BIO5-supported faculty have pulled in $36.5 million in new research grant money. Chandler said the institute has helped retain four senior UA faculty and recruit 28 more, bringing the number of affiliated faculty members to nearly 100. BIO5 is also engaged in an array of projects to help develop a sustainable biotechnology workforce for Arizona’s growing infrastructure.

But amid juggling these major grant dollars, high-profile faculty appointments, and researcher training efforts, Chandler still puts the emphasis on interdisciplinary students. She says that attracting and nurturing good undergraduate and graduate scientists who can interface across fields is an essential ingredient in BIO5’s recipe for long term success.

 

When did you start down the path to the research bench, and what did that path look like?

As I was growing up I had no idea that I would become a scientist. I was always good at math and science but I didn’t get excited about science in high school. After high school I took up scuba diving as a hobby and became fascinated with the ocean. When thinking about college, I decided to major in marine biology because of scuba diving. Once I started taking classes and learning the basics of chemistry, physics, and biology, I realized that what really excited me was understanding life at the cellular and sub-cellular level. So I ended up majoring in biochemistry.

As a Regents Professor in the department of plant sciences who studied where you did, I can’t help but think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Did that book’s publication influence you and the way you thought about our interaction with the plant world?

I grew up in Northern California in the ’60s and was very influenced by the environmental movement that exploded during those years. I was moved by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but this is not why I became a plant biologist. In fact, I don’t really see myself as a plant biologist, because my training is more in biochemistry and genetics.

I only began working on plants during my postdoctoral years because I was fascinated with the gene regulation phenomena that were described in the literature. Now, after having worked with plants for over 20 years, I appreciate much more fully how amazing and important plants are to our planet and to the quality of our lives.

I’ve even learned enough about plants to be okay with being called a plant biologist!%pagebreak%

As an accomplished woman scientist, I wonder how you reacted to Harvard President Larry Summers’ recent comment that innate cognitive differences between the sexes might explain the relative scarcity of women in the top academic tiers. Has your experience becoming a top researcher and professor in a scientific field been colored by your gender? What do you think accounts for the scarcity Summers addressed?

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had very supportive mentors, both male and female. But success in science is very much dependent on a network of interactions and relationships.

And I think that does result in social differences that influence women and men differently. Essentially all of the science fields are male-dominated, some more than others. And frankly, I think most men are more comfortable hanging out and having informal discussions with other men than with women. Often career women, especially those who are raising families too, are juggling an amazing amount and really don’t have the time to go for coffee or a beer and just talk science. It is well-documented that there are still forms of subtle discrimination against women. In almost all instances I’m aware of, it is unintentional, but it exists nonetheless. The climate is better here than at some other schools, but there is always room for improvement.

Are you looking forward to moving BIO5 into its home in the Keating Building?

Yes, it will be terrific for a number of reasons. We are a virtual institute now, with staff and faculty spread out all over campus. The Keating Building, which is scheduled to open in the March or April 2006, will provide an administrative home as well as serve as the research hub for all of our programs. So our programs will still be spread out over the campus, but the building will have conference and meeting rooms and be an excellent venue to showcase our training and outreach activities.

Collaboration seems to be an overarching theme at BIO5. Can you talk about its importance for you the institute’s health and mission?

Collaboration is definitely an overarching theme–collaboration between scientists in different disciplines, collaboration between our scientists and industry, and collaboration between our scientists and other educators (K-12, community college, other universities). I believe collaboration is a necessity to maximize what we can do with the resources available to us.

By virtue of being funded by Proposition 301, BIO5 seems to share the spirit of improving K-12 and higher education in Arizona. Does the institute directly impact undergraduates at the UA?

Absolutely! BIO5 has provided funds to develop new undergraduate courses in biotechnology and has assisted a dozen marketing students with independent study projects. In the past three years, our faculty has already trained about 160 undergraduate researchers, and we contribute funds to a competitively-funded federal program that trains hundreds more.

We are also supporting an internship program that will allow students in the new biotechnology certificate program at Pima Community College to intern in our laboratories and obtain real-world, hands-on research experience.

Tell me about Bio5’s adoption of the Quantitative Biology Initiative, a budgetary orphan of the university. Is Bio5 its permanent home, and if so, what sort of impact do you see it having on the collaborative equation there?

I believe that quantitative biology is going to be even more important in the next 10 years. So strengthening interactions between biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and engineers and training our students to span these disciplines is crucial for staying competitive.

UA has significant strengths in computational biology, informatics, bioengineering, physics, and applied math. What BIO5 is doing is helping to facilitate interactions between the programs that already exist and stimulating new ones. QBI, which was launched last fall, has evolved into a broad-based consortium and has been renamed QBC, the Quantitative Biology Consortium. BIO5 is providing an administrative structure and seed money to promote training and research activities. We have a number of excellent faculty working [with the consortium] and I’m very excited about the impact we can have.

As a member of the National Academy of Sciences, what is your take on the new ethics conflict-of-interest rules NIH just announced? Were they a necessary measure in your opinion?

It is interesting that you ask, as I just returned from a NAS meeting in Irvine where this was discussed in some detail. Several academy members had been on a panel that prepared a detailed report for NIH on this issue.

What everyone should understand is that our government has always had strict conflict-of-interest rules for government employees, including NIH employees. It appears that in the current situation, a subset of NIH employees were actually not following the rules and were consulting for drug companies without having filled out the necessary paperwork and getting permission (or not) from their supervisors. These people should definitely be disciplined.

However, I think the new rules are a political over-reaction to a few bad apples (or ignorant employees).