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Stanford Report, January 30, 2002

Scott appointed chair of culture-bridging Bio-X council


Matthew P. Scott, a professor of developmental biology and of genetics, has been named the new chair of the Bio-X program -- a campus-wide initiative designed to stimulate interdisciplinary research in bioengineering, biomedicine and the biosciences. His five-year appointment became effective Jan. 1.

Scott will report to the Bio-X executive committee, which is composed of the deans of the four schools that oversee the program -- Medicine, Engineering, Earth Sciences, and Humanities and Sciences -- and the dean of research. His new title is chair of the Bio-X leadership council -- a faculty advisory group that will be selected by Scott and the executive committee.

"Education is the key to successful interdisciplinary research," he said. "My focus as chair of the leadership council will be on curriculum and promoting communication among scientists and engineers who are used to speaking different languages and who come from different cultures. In my own lab the increasing importance of engineering and biocomputation has brought home the need for such initiatives."

Scott will continue his active research program as an investigator supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and will continue teaching in the Stanford School of Medicine, where -- in addition to his two professorships -- he also serves on the faculty of the Neurosciences and Cancer Biology programs.

Scott expressed gratitude to the faculty members who have led the Bio-X program since its inception in 1998 -- particularly former Bio-X co-directors James Spudich (professor of biochemistry and developmental biology) and Channing Robertson (professor of chemical engineering), and physics Professor Steven Chu.

"I am grateful to all the people who have worked, and are working, so hard to build this program. They deserve enormous credit for undertaking a challenging and exciting new approach to bringing disciplines together," he said.

"I'm absolutely delighted that Matt Scott has agreed to take this job as we move forward into the next phase of the program," Spudich noted. "I think he's going to do a great job."

Jim Clark donation

Bio-X was launched in 1999 with a $150 million donation from Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark -- a former Stanford engineering professor who later founded Silicon Graphics, Netscape and other successful high-tech companies. An anonymous donor contributed an additional $60 million in 2000.

Clark's vision was to encourage the development of cutting-edge medical technologies through interdisciplinary grants and a state-of-the-art research facility -- the Clark Center -- where innovative collaborations among engineers, biologists, medical researchers and physical scientists could flourish.

Last year, Clark surprised Bio-X administrators by announcing that he would suspend $60 million of his original pledge to protest President George W. Bush's policy restricting federally funded embryonic stem cell research. Finding new sources of financial support to replace the Clark donation is one of several challenges facing the Bio-X program.

"Bio-X is an exciting and challenging endeavor that's never been tried on this scale," Scott said. "The two great gifts, from Jim Clark and the anonymous donor, have brought the program to life, but a lot more funding will be needed to make it prosper."

The original Clark gift also funded the Interdisciplinary Initiatives program, which provides matching grants for innovative research projects encompassing more than one field.

"These grants are crucial to Bio-X, because they reach people all over campus and help to initiate creative projects that later will compete for external funding," Scott said. "Since only a small fraction of the applications is funded, and for only one time, the quality is high and the novelty great. With generous support from [Stanford] President John Hennessy, the program will continue for a few more years, after which a new endowment will be required."

Search committee

Scott was chosen by a search committee made up of Dean of Research Charles Kruger and six professors: Harvey Cohen, pediatrics; Scott Delp, mechanical engineering; Keith Hodgson, chemistry; Chaitan Khosla, chemical engineering and chemistry; David Siegmund, statistics; and Richard Tsien, molecular and cellular physiology.

"In virtually everyone's opinion, Dr. Scott is uniquely qualified to chair the leadership council for Bio-X," wrote Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine.

"Matt is experienced and agile in collaborating with people in the Medical School and other schools on campus," Kruger added. "I'm really looking forward to working with him."

Scott holds bachelor's and doctoral degrees from MIT and taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder, before coming to Stanford in 1990. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is recognized for his 1983 co-discovery of the homeobox -- a DNA sequence that marks an important subset of genes in all animals. Homeobox genes coordinate the activities of other genes as animal development proceeds. His laboratory also identified the genetic cause of the most common human cancer, basal cell carcinoma, and of medulloblastoma -- a cancer of the brain -- and is now working on the precursor cells that form parts of the brain.

"Biology by its nature brings together lots of approaches and fosters collaborations," he explained. "My current research is directed at understanding the genetic control of animal development and the relations of developmental biology to human disease. The degree to which all animals -- and indeed to a great extent all living organisms -- share genes and proteins has been the big surprise of the past 20 years. This common genetic heritage creates a common language among diverse types of biologists, just as Bio-X should among the different sciences and engineering."

Clark Center

The centerpiece of Bio-X is the $147 million James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences now under construction along Campus Drive West. Administration of the building -- slated for completion in 2003 -- will be the responsibility of Beth Kane, administrative and operations director of Bio-X.

Some 40 faculty members will be given laboratory space in the Clark Center, including Scott, who pointed out that while there are "still some uncertainties" about which existing faculty will move into the building, "about a quarter of the faculty in the building will be new to Stanford, a potent influx of new energy."

New faculty will be recruited by participating departments, he added.

"The Bio-X program is there to give students greater freedom to bring every tool to bear on the problems of biology," Scott explained. "Right now, everything on campus is split into divisions that create obstacles for students who want to do something interdisciplinary. We feel there's a better way."

Scott and the five executive committee deans have designated several areas of emphasis for Bio-X, including biocomputation, biophysics, biodesign, bioengineering, chemical biology, genomics/proteomics and regenerative medicine, which includes stem cell research. A new Department of Bioengineering -- a joint endeavor involving the schools of Medicine and Engineering -- will be headquartered in the Clark Center.

"Much remains to be done to make it easy for teams from different fields to work effectively together on a biological problem," Scott said. "Simply putting people from different fields near each other is not nearly enough. We will need to create new curricula, alter the usual single student-single mentor structure and find ways to overcome the language and conceptual barriers that prevent useful collaboration."

In industry it is routine to form multidisciplinary teams, Scott noted, but their goals -- unlike those of academia -- are often short term and highly defined.

"We need to create such teams, or really create a way for such teams to continuously form, but with the long-term triple goals of education, discovery and invention," he said. "As we continue to build the program, we will be asking faculty, students and fellows to identify specific mechanisms for creating diverse and functional teams. Chemistry, physics and engineering are connecting to biology and medicine more than ever before, and Stanford is the right place for this great potential to reach fruition. This is a very exciting time."