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With Lewin, UIUC Institute Moves Beyond Biomedicine

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Harris Lewin says he was never really looking to become the director of the Post Genomics Institute, a new $73.5 million center under construction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but somehow the job came looking for him. Lewin, the current director of the Keck Center for Comparative and Functional Genomics and a professor of immunogenetics at the university, decided not to apply for the position when the university undertook an external search, but when the search committee came after him, he says he began to see the position as an “extraordinary opportunity” to make a lasting impact on the university’s contribution to genomics: “Why let someone else screw it up when I could do that myself?” he jokes.

Lewin says his institute, about four years in the making, will attempt to apply genomics to problems in agriculture, microbial pathogenesis, geomicrobiology, mammalian development, neuroscience, and social behavior. Opening the institute’s concentrations beyond biomedicine not only makes the PGI unique, Lewin says, but also takes advantage of UIUC’s breadth of expertise. “With our real strengths in engineering, computing, agriculture, environmental science, and microbiology, we decided to lay down claim to a certain approach toward doing research in genomic biology that would address issues that are slightly different,” he says.

To do this, Lewin encouraged groups of related departments at the university who expressed interest in establishing a presence in the center to identify common themes for the subject of their genomics research, and submit joint proposals for how they would address these themes. In addition to agriculture, neuroscience, and behavioral genomics, the PGI’s themes will also include microbial genomics and its applications in biodefense, and a hefty emphasis on technology development.

And we haven’t even started talking about the building itself. The university has already spent $7 million just planning the structure, which was designed by CUH2A, a Chicago-based architecture firm that also drew up the plans for Pfizer’s Discovery Technology Center. When finished in late 2005, the PGI will house almost 300 people spread across three floors, with two research themes per floor. Joining the open-design labs on each floor will be a crew of bioinformaticians, at a ratio of seven to eight per research theme. In addition, the PGI will offer resources and space for starting up businesses, as well as undergraduate teaching laboratories for bioinformatics and wet lab-based genomic biology. “We can’t build the space fast enough!” Lewin says.

— John S. MacNeil

 

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