Life Sciences Initiative takes shape

Dec 17th, 2010 | By | Category: Campus News, November 18

UNL’s Life Sciences Initiative has started to set down roots.

Proposed by Chancellor Harvey Perlman in his 2009 State of the University Address, the Life Sciences Initiative is bringing together faculty within the many disciplines of the life sciences. In the last year, the Faculty of the Life Sciences group and Faculty of Life Sciences Executive Committee were formed. And, on Sept. 24, a Faculty of Life Sciences retreat was held, highlighted by speakers Molly Jahn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Nina Fedoroff, president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The retreat resulted in a report that will be presented to the chancellor and other UNL administrators later this month.

“In the last year, we have spent a lot of time organizing and brainstorming, which all led to the retreat,” said Andrew Benson, professor of Food Science and Technology and co-chair of the Life Sciences Executive Committee. “Where we go now depends on the reaction of upper administration and fellow faculty to this report.”

The chancellor’s call for the initiative grew from a 2009 review by peers of UNL programs within the molecular life sciences. The report identified administrative tensions that hindered collaboration between university units. The review team outlined programs at other universities — including Missouri, Arizona State and Ohio State — that could be used as models to increase collaborations. The report reinforced the importance of a core life sciences curriculum that would better serve students and involve faculty from City and East campuses.

“The evolution of life sciences is also being driven, in large part, by new directions in biological study and federal funding,” said Benson.

Historically, biological research has focused on individual items within a system — components biology. Today, studies are directed at understanding complex systems and being able to model functions in a predictive manner — systems biology. And, federal grants have made a similar shift, with more dollars directed at systems biology.

Benson said the transition in research funding has occurred in the last decade.

“Stakeholders want output,” Benson said. “They want larger scale projects that work toward solutions to global problems.”

The Faculty of the Life Sciences is a loose group of around 200 faculty who have self-identified as working in the life sciences. This group attended the retreat and provided the basis for the report being submitted to UNL officials.

The Life Sciences Executive Committee, co-chaired by Benson and Heriberto Cerutti, an associate professor in biological sciences, is tasked with overseeing the entire initiative, putting ideas in front of UNL administrators. The committee includes 12 faculty from across life science disciplines. A complete list of committee members is available online at

Benson said the report from the Faculty of Life Sciences retreat is the first document created by the committee.

The report outlines the need for a life sciences initiative, challenges to be faced, and opportunities to embrace. It also calls for a restructuring modeled after the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State University.

“We see a need to split into thematic areas where UNL has strengths and the ability for growth. These are areas that make sense to both the university and Nebraska,” said Benson. “Each of the areas we have proposed relate to global problems. They are all interconnected.”

The proposed model for the Life Sciences Initiative includes a three-pronged division between public outreach, research clusters and interdisciplinary education. Six research clusters have been proposed and include stress biology, bioenergy, health and food design, ecosystems, bioproducts, and information integration and modeling.

The retreat document also calls for the need to hire five to eight new hires (at least two at the senior level) who will have a shared appointment in the initiative and a home department of their choice.

Structure of the initiative will be virtual, allowing participation of current faculty and promotion of interdisciplinary research and education. The report also calls for a new building to house core faculty members and provide space for integrative and innovative science.

According to the report, UNL’s Life Sciences Initiative “will promote excellence and focus on areas of distinct comparative advantage while encouraging partnerships with industry to advance commercialization of useful products.”

The committee sees the Life Sciences Initiative as an important tool as UNL aligns with Big Ten universities next year.

“Jumping into the Big Ten is a big step up for us academically and we need to meet that challenge,” said Benson. “The pieces are there to do this, but we have to bring them together. That is what we are proposing through the Life Sciences Initiative.”

Benson said the inclusive nature of the Faculty of the Life Sciences has been beneficial, making the process a “grass roots campaign” and reducing negativity related to academic change.

And, regardless of the final decisions of the chancellor and UNL administrators, Benson said work on the initiative has been a step forward for the university.

“I’m cautiously optimistic in regards to reaction from upper administration,” said Benson. “But, by simply talking about the Life Sciences Initiative, we are seeing better coordination of research across the board. We have faculty coming together on projects already. Our hope is to see more of that through this initiative.”

For more information on the initiative, including the Life Sciences Initiative report generated after the retreat, go to Faculty can also self-identify to join the Life Sciences Initiative through the website.

– Troy Fedderson, University Communications

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