Genomics research center receives final approval

After 18 months of planning, the Dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences, Richard Saller, recently gave final approval for a new center that will fill the need for a unified genomics research center on campus. Led by genetics professor Carlos Bustamante and biology professor Marc Feldman Ph.D. ’69, the new Stanford Center for Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics is predicted to improve the University’s reputation in the field, as well as draw top talent to Stanford.

While the official University announcement has not yet been made, outgoing School of Medicine Dean Philip Pizzo shared news about the center in his last full newsletter, which was published on Nov. 5.

“There was a recognition among the administration of how significant and vital it was to support this project and take a risk,” Saller said.

From the beginning, the Center was envisioned as the next step in Stanford’s legacy of interdisciplinary research dating back to the 1960s. Feldman sees the center as a continuation of the work started by his doctoral advisor, the late Samuel Karlin, who led Stanford to prominence as an institution dedicated to interdisciplinary research efforts and is recognized as one of the great applied mathematicians.

“The Stanford school of interdisciplinary research continues to thrive, and with this new center, we hope to continue that tradition of excellence,” Feldman said.

The Center has plans to include faculty members from the School of Humanities & Sciences, School of Engineering, School of Medicine and the Stanford Law School.  Bustamante noted that while the need for a unified genomics research center was recognized, a concerted effort to establish one only began recently.

Unlike Bio-X, which has the goal of “supporting interdisciplinary research connected to biology and medicine,” according to its website, the new center will have a more specific mission.

“Bio-X has a broad focus, whereas this center is focused solely on genomics and its applications,” Feldman said.

Chiefly, the Center will specialize in the analysis of big data with a smaller emphasis on lab work.

In the next five years, the Center, using seed funding from the School of Humanities & Sciences and the Office of the Provost, aims to gradually wean itself off of the University and eventually become viable through external research grants and philanthropic contributions. In the beginning, the directors foresee a concentrated effort on building collective knowledge by sponsoring colloquia, symposia and lectures, hiring new postdoctoral fellows and engaging in genomic consulting for academics and industry.

In the long run, the Center’s goal is to maintain and expand Stanford’s reputation in the field, as well as broaden applications in genomics, help with external recruitment and add new research in the field.

The Center is expected to quickly integrate with other departments on campus and establish itself as an eminent interdisciplinary research center, with a deliberate aim to incorporate not only human genomics, but also research on the genomes of other living creatures, as well as ecological and agricultural genomics. Proposed long-term research projects include working with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity to investigate how social systems affect genomes, tracing our genetic history in collaboration with paleoanthropologists and examining the genomes of cultivated animals to see how they have changed over time.

Currently, the Center does not have currently have a physical location on campus, although efforts are under way to locate suitable office space. Bustamante does not believe this will negatively impact the center.

“The most important aspect of the Center is that we create an environment that is rich with opportunities for interdisciplinary research,” Bustamante said. “Events we sponsor and graduate students with broad interests are more important than desks.”

This commitment to interdisciplinary research and openness among faculty is very encouraging to Lloyd Minor, the new dean of the School of Medicine.

“Our peer institutions often suffer from barriers to working together and turf wars, and I’m happy to say that this has not been my experience with Stanford,” Minor wrote in a statement to The Daily.

The School of Medicine will most likely benefit from its collaboration with the Center, in alignment with Minor’s goal of creating a new class of physician that will be able to understand complex data and effectively communicate advantages and disadvantages of certain procedures to their patients.

The new Center will be in direct competition with institutions such as the Broad Institute, a joint Harvard-MIT initiative, for top-shelf researchers, money and prestige. Regardless, Feldman said he is very confident that he and his colleagues will beat the odds.

“Stanford is not new to competition,” Feldman said. “If history is any guide, we will prevail in this case as we have almost always done.”