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Michigan’s Scientific Mash-Up

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Structural biologist Janet Smith spent years at Purdue University looking at complex enzymes, or those with more than one active site. David Sherman, a chemical genomics expert, had a lab at the University of Minnesota. Today, Smith and Sherman have a close and fruitful collaboration, thanks to the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan.

Both Smith and Sherman were recruited to the institute at Michigan, and they have different departmental appointments — hers in the medical school, and his in the college of pharmacy. Had it not been for their placement at the Life Sciences Institute, says Smith, “it would’ve taken us a lot longer to stumble across each other and discover our mutual interest.”

That capacity for facilitating collaboration is one of the main reasons the University of Michigan first embraced the idea of an institute geared toward the life sciences, says institute director Alan Saltiel. It began with a commission that met in the mid-’90s to figure out ways to keep the university at the leading edge of life sciences. Their recommendations, while “fairly broad and nebulous” to allow flexibility, according to Saltiel, were the beginnings of the institute, which officially started in 2003. It was far from a recipe for success, though. “There really weren’t blueprints for how to do this,” Saltiel recalls of early planning sessions for how the institute would operate.

One of the key goals he had for it was to successfully bring together chemists and biologists. “That’s where the most powerful collaborations occur,” he says, acknowledging that they can also be the most difficult to put together. “One is more quantitative and one is more qualitative.” Saltiel and his team approached the problem with two centers housed at the institute — chemical genomics and structural biology — that he saw as successful ways that the community had already blended the two disciplines.

The institute was founded “on the model where you try to find the best athletes,” Saltiel says. “We [tried] to find the best scientists, the best team players, rather than trying to impose on them a formal structure and focus of what problems to work on. … We were kind of stacking the deck in our favor.” He began recruiting faculty immediately with the idea that great science would occur as long as great minds were working together.

But being a great scientist wasn’t enough to get an offer from the institute, Saltiel notes. He says that from the early days of planning he learned to pick up on cues indicating which scientists really bought into the interdisciplinary, interactive model he had in mind for the institute. One litmus test came from the LSI’s different approach to lab space — nobody has designated, protected lab space; rather, space is shared and labs expand or contract as personnel requires. “We don’t talk about territory. … We don’t measure square feet,” Saltiel says. When he showed people around, their response was often very telling of their attitude toward no-barrier, truly collaborative science. “Some people were very nervous about this. They wanted a guarantee that there were going to be X number of square feet for them. And there were some people who said, ‘Oh, fine. Who else is here?’ They wanted to know who their neighbors are and how their lives would be enriched.”

Something worked, at any rate. Today, the institute has 26 faculty members, and an overall staff of some 500 people. “We have a good group of people who really like to work together,” Saltiel says. While collaborations are always encouraged, programs for younger members — such as mini-rotations for students that allow them to spend several weeks in each lab — are among the more formal ways the institute facilitates these.

Working Together

One of Saltiel’s favorite things to come from life at the institute is seeing people not only working across scientific boundaries, but seeing that doing so makes them stronger scientists. “One of the benefits that’s associated with being here is this confidence that you get [in being] out of your comfort zone,” he says. His lab has “ventured into a new area of inflammation” — a path that simply wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for working at the institute, he notes.

Janet Smith, who heads up the institute’s structural biology center, says much the same thing has gone on in her lab. She’s collaborating with David Sherman, director of the chemical genomics center, on a type of molecule he has studied for years. “The real attraction here is to understand how these pathways work so that we can pick them apart and rearrange them so we can make them do what we want them to do,” she says. Her lab, of course, takes a structural approach to the work, while Sherman’s group is more focused on screening these molecules to find potential drug targets.

Sherman says having the structure of a molecule could eventually help in computer-aided drug design around those molecules. “My research laboratory is focused on developing new ways to isolate natural products both from novel microorganisms like marine bacteria and also through bioengineering of the metabolic systems that actually generate these molecules in microorganisms,” Sherman says. “Then we provide those molecules for our screening program in the center for chemical genomics.”

For his part, Sherman handles high-throughput screening for anyone at the university interested in using the technology; the center seems to be a lightning rod for scientists studying small molecules. “We must have at least 25 collaborations going on right now,” he says — most of those are with faculty who are not affiliated with the institute.

Smith has a number of collaborations of her own, many of them within the institute. “It is so easy to keep in touch with people,” she says. “The arrangement of big open labs means the people in my labs have a lot more … scientific exchange” with other members of the institute than would be possible in most environments. Smith says she’s been particularly impressed by the open-mindedness of her LSI colleagues.

That willingness to try new things is a hallmark of the institute, which is itself the university’s way of trying something new. “The identity of the institute is important,” Saltiel says, “because we’re in some ways doing an experiment. We’re asking the question, what is the best way to organize research in the future?”

Name: Life Sciences Institute

Host: University of Michigan

Director: Alan Saltiel

Began: The institute opened in 2003, and has been in the planning stages since a commission met in the mid-’90s to discuss the future of life sciences at the university.

Staff: LSI currently has 26 faculty members and some 500 people overall working in the institute.

Funding: Most of LSI’s financing comes through external research grants, but some of the money to start it up and run it comes from the proceeds of a $150 million endowment.

Research: Faculty members study a range of biological and chemical problems, but the main themes at the institute include chemical biology, signal transduction, structural biology, and disease genetics.

Core facilities: The institute tries not to duplicate core labs already in place at the university’s medical school, to which all Michigan scientists have access. Instead, the push is to start labs that aren’t available elsewhere. These include labs for X-ray diffraction, protein crystallization and production, high-throughput screening, flow cytometry, animal facilities, and more. Core labs for NMR and mass spectrometry are in the works.

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