Three initiatives arising from Stanford’s Long-Range Vision have recently had leadership appointments – a step toward implementing programs that will further humanities research and accelerate new medicines.

The initiatives are part of a vision for the future of Stanford announced last May by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Stemming from campus-wide proposals, it includes initiatives aimed at accelerating solutions for our planet, our health and society, empowering discovery and creativity across disciplines and transforming education, in addition to initiatives that support the campus community.

The Innovative Medicines Accelerator (IMA) will be led by Chaitan Khosla, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and Baker Family Co-Director of Stanford ChEM-H. The IMA will enhance the ability of Stanford’s scientific, engineering and clinical researchers to discover innovative medicines, and to get those medicines to patients more quickly, at lower cost and more precisely targeted to individual patients. It is one of several accelerators in the Long-Range Vision that will be developing new models for how to scale solutions for the world’s most pressing problems.

Two other initiatives with new leadership are both focused on aspects of supporting research in the humanities and promoting that work to the public. The Changing Human Experience will be co-led by Gavin Jones, professor of English, and Anna Grzymala-Busse, professor of political science. The Public Humanities will be co-led by Mark Greif, associate professor of English, and Blakey Vermeule, professor of English.

The Long-Range Vision has elevated research in the humanities and social sciences because of their critical role in interpreting and informing our place in a rapidly changing world.

“Given current events in the world, like climate change and the rise of global populism, the humanities need to be first and foremost,” said Grzymala-Busse, who is also the Kevin and Michelle Douglas Professor of International Studies. “Medicine or technology won’t save us without a society that functions.”

The Changing Human Experience will support research in the humanities through grants to faculty who are investigating themes of significant changes in the human experience, whose work relates to areas of contemporary public concern or that can engage audiences beyond the university.

Jones and Grzymala-Busse said by exploring themes like democracy, inequality or culture, humanities researchers can shed light on issues of current importance.

“These issues have been around for thousands of years and the humanities can weigh in on that,” Grzymala-Busse said. Many researchers are also starting to work in larger groups, with more students. “This shift requires more funding to stimulate one kind of research that is tremendously important right now,” she said.

The Public Humanities are a companion to the Changing Human Experience, helping humanities faculty reach an audience outside academia through trade books, op-eds, media interviews, public speaking, magazine stories and other outlets. They will hold a series of trainings and interactive workshops for interested faculty with guest speakers such as book agents or op-ed editors to give faculty the skills and confidence to take their scholarship to a larger audience. In addition, the Public Humanities will hold networking sessions to help faculty connect with potential publishers and also to build community between faculty who want to engage with the public sphere.

“We have a lot of brilliant scholars and writers at Stanford,” said Vermeule, who is also Albert Guérard Professor in Literature. “We would like to help people write for and to a range of audiences, including non-academic ones.”

Vermeule said the humanities are especially important for helping society connect with the past. “If we lose track of our past and our history, and we have no way of narrating that past and that history, then it means there is a kind of general collapse of self-understanding that I think is so important,” she said. “The human need for some kind of transcendence or connection to a story or to history is profoundly important.”

Improving human health

The Innovative Medicines Accelerator addresses a very different kind of human need. It will enhance the collective abilities that exist at Stanford by drawing on knowledge in the natural sciences and leveraging expertise and resources that exist within Stanford ChEM-H, the School of Medicine and the hospitals to develop new medicines.

“The breadth and depth of biology at Stanford is second to none,” said Khosla, who is also the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering. “If this expertise can be more effectively coupled with state-of-the-art molecular design and analysis, the university could accelerate the engineering of innovative drug prototypes that will, in turn, spawn the next generation of medicines that cure disease or reduce the cost of hospitalization or professional services.”

The Innovative Medicines Accelerator will also harness both precision and population health to develop drugs that are more effective in targeted individuals or populations.

“Studying population health is important because when you study interesting populations of patients you can learn things about not just the drug but the disease that helps inform the next generation of drugs,” Khosla added.

In addition to experimental medicine studies, in which scientists and clinicians test ideas in individual patients, the Innovative Medicines Accelerator will work with industry to speed the time and lower the cost of getting potential drugs to patients.

Khosla, Jones, Grzymala-Busse, Greif and Vermeule are professors in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Khosla is also a professor in the School of Engineering and a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute, Stanford Cancer Institute and Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Gryzmala-Busse is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.