Feb. 1, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 9

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    $2.5 million will benefit graduate study in biomedical research

    In an effort to bring fresh perspectives into biomedical research, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has awarded a five-year, $2.5 million grant to the University to foster graduate training at the intersection between the physical and biological sciences.

    The Chicago grant is one of four totaling $9.25 million awarded this year as part of the fund’s Interfaces in Science program. The program’s goal is to train investigators coming from quantitative and theoretical backgrounds so they may introduce new approaches and ideas into the biological sciences.

    “The awards help fill the gap left by federal funding efforts that are discipline-specific,” said fund president Enriqueta Bond. “Through these award programs, the goal is to try to jump-start a new type of training to meet the quantitative challenges emerging in biology.”

    Stephen Kron, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, and Norbert Scherer, Professor in Chemistry, co-direct the Chicago program. The program’s goal is to bring talented physical sciences grad-uate students into biological laboratories at the University or Argonne National Laboratory and provide dual mentorship for each student.

    The program is an outgrowth of the University’s Institute for Biophysical Dynamics, which is devoted to the study of converging developments in the biological and physical sciences.

    The institute will be the centerpiece for the Interdisciplinary Research Building, scheduled for completion in 2004. The new building will bring scientists from the biological sciences, the medical school and the physical sciences under one roof to promote interdisciplinary collaboration.

    The Burroughs Wellcome grant will enhance this fluid culture of scientific exchange by helping physical scientists gain insight into modern molecular and cellular biology, said Scherer, a Co-director of the institute.

    “Biological processes have multiple causes and consequences,” Scherer said. “Order and structure exist on many different scales of time, space and organization. The integration of ideas and methods from many disciplines is necessary to make significant steps in understanding complex issues.”

    Physical scientists with intensive cross training in state-of-the-art biology will be poised to take future leadership roles in biology, Kron said. “A real understanding of how DNA and proteins function in cells will require experiments and approaches beyond what present biologists are trained for. This new generation of cross-trained scientists will be prepared to attack such problems,” he said.

    The program will support up to 12 students a year, most of them for two years. As many as 30 students from physics, chemistry, computer science, statistics and mathematics will be accepted as Burroughs Wellcome fellows during the five-year grant period.

    Those who receive the fellowships will work with joint mentors from both the physical and biological sciences, participate in department-based core courses and select additional coursework tailored to their research goals. “These new cross-disciplinary courses, a variation of the Great Books Series that is the foundation of the University’s Common Core, will focus on great problems in modern biology to quickly gain appreciation for the different culture of the discipline,” Scherer said.

    Fellows also will participate in a weekly seminar-discussion group. But the most important component of the training program is the immersion of physical science graduate students in biological science laboratories, where they will study for two years, Kron said.

    “No amount of reading or coursework can replace working side-by-side with biologists,” he said. “We believe that these young physical scientists will bring an important, rigorous perspective with them, which will enrich the experience for the biologists in training beside them. This is a clear win-win situation for the students and for their mentors.”