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Collaborative research at universities is not always encouraged or rewarded, says School of Science Dean Joseph Flaherty. There is a belief, he says, that collaboration is somehow suspect, as if a researcher is not “good enough” to work independently. But interdisciplinary research has always been “part of our culture,” says Flaherty. At Rensselaer, he says, a faculty member who is working alone would be asked, “why not collaborate?”

The collaborative spirit has helped Rensselaer compete with larger research universities, says Flaherty. Interdisciplinary teams operate “at the boundaries of disciplines, rather than in the dead middle,” he says, “and they are more likely to yield distinctive and original work.”

Ken Gertz, assistant vice president of research, agrees that collaboration is critical to success. The federal government fosters it by emphasizing the need for multidisciplinary proposals and the major research problems out there demand it. Today’s research projects call for a collaborative approach, and federal government grant-funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), emphasize multidisciplinary teams and proposals.

Rensselaer’s four-year-old Office of Research promotes collaboration among researchers via a couple of different mechanisms. There is an intramural seed grant program, awarded to “teams of faculty that would like to explore interesting, new applications of their research,” says Gertz. It’s akin to ‘start-up’ money for a new collaborative effort. “The team must have a well-thought-out strategic plan in terms of going to federal funding agencies,” he says. The office also facilitates external research partnerships with industry, medical centers, federal labs, and other universities.

The Rensselaer Plan pledged to significantly grow the Institute’s sponsored research support to $100 million annually. As of this summer, Rensselaer received $89 million in research awards — up from $37 million in fiscal year 1998. There also is significant growth in awards from NIH, the primary sponsor of research in the life sciences. Rensselaer had just $400,000 in NIH awards three years ago, but today that amount totals more than $24 million in active NIH grants.

Growing a biotechnology research program also requires partnerships with medical schools — the optimal place to test and validate therapeutic applications. Doctors at the Hospital for Special Surgery of Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, for example, are collaborating with Plopper on his bone-engineering studies. This project has garnered a $2.6 million grant from NIH, the largest award Rensselaer has ever received for an individual researcher.

While Rensselaer is taking advantage of existing strengths to build its biotechnology program, the life sciences also are benefiting from the research surge.

The Institute has dramatically expanded the Department of Biology with the appointment of eight new faculty members over the last two years. The new faculty provide expertise fundamental to the new research programs to be carried out in the center.

“Each of the new faculty brings expertise in powerful and flexible research methods that produce rapid results and the potential for biomedically important discoveries,” says Palazzo. “With this expansion, biology and biotechnology research is rapidly approaching a critical mass that will be profoundly beneficial for scientific breakthroughs.”

In addition to supporting new growth, the biology department is revamping the old. “[The department] is reviewing and redoing both the undergraduate and the graduate curriculum in biology,” says Palazzo. In addition, it is instituting a new course in the School of Science, launched this fall, that is eventually to be taken by all students. Palazzo says the course, a year in the making, is designed to give an interdisciplinary approach to biology and is targeted to both biology majors and nonmajors.

The RPI Factor
Other universities are taking note of Rensselaer’s rapid expansion in the field and high-profile hires. Stephen Kresovich, director of the Institute for Biotechnology and Life Science Technologies at Cornell University, says, “It’s really quite impressive how fast things are going at RPI.”

Although Cornell has had a biotech program for 20 years, Kresovich admits to feeling the competitive pressure from the activity at Rensselaer. “I believe RPI, like Cornell, like all the leading institutions in life sciences, are in a horse race,” says Kresovich. “Certainly there are risks to rapid enlargement; conversely, if it’s done thoughtfully with a strategic plan and the recruitments are held to the highest standards, I would take that risk as opposed to being slow to engage.”

Kresovich agrees with Rensselaer’s focus on building on existing strengths. “An equally important question is: What are the important issues for society in the 21st century? And how do you marshal the resources at RPI to address some of those?” Kresovich says Rensselaer will bring areas of expertise to biotechnology that other institutions simply don’t have.

Biotech Center walkways
Considering the biotechnology business boom in recent years, there is keen interest in the bottom line of research: applications that have commercial potential. Rensselaer is working on this front as well. Charles Rancourt ’70, director of the Office of Technology Commercialization, reports a remarkable growth in activity on campus in this regard. “Our disclosure flow tripled in a matter of four to five years,” he reports. Disclosure, when a faculty member reports intellectual property to the institution, is the first step in the commercialization process.

The increase in disclosures is a result of two factors, says Rancourt. An “attention factor” has resulted from Rensselaer being proactive in building relationships with researchers on campus, helping them add value to the intellectual property and working with them to identify commercial opportunities.

The second, Rancourt says, is the “RPI factor,” the tradition of applying science and technology “to the common purposes of life,” as Stephen Van Rensselaer wrote in the Institute’s charter. He says Rensselaer has made significant progress in the area of commercialization. “For our size school, the disclosure yield — in terms of number of disclosures per research dollar — is more than double the average,” he says.

An example of this growth in commercialization is found in the drug discovery work of several Rensselaer researchers. Jonathan Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann ’42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, uses biocatalysis as a drug discovery tool to improve the efficiency of procuring unique chemical structures that may yield new therapeutic medications. “We’re looking at making a paradigm shift in how drug discovery and drug development are performed,” he says.

Dordick has spent the last 15 years harnessing the power of enzymes, biological molecules that catalyze chemical reactions, to produce unique chemical structures. He calls the process “combinatorial biocatalysis,” a term that merges the biotech approach with the industry standard of combinatorial chemistry and dramatically accelerates the drug discovery process. “Biocatalysis, unlike chemistry, can deal with complex molecules,” he says. “And it can do that with necessary selectivity — where we want to modify the molecule, how we want to modify it.”

Meanwhile, Curt Breneman, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, uses a chem-informatics approach to improve predictability in the screening of chemical libraries for therapeutic and toxic effects. He is part of a team of researchers in computer science, chemistry, and mathematics who have created a software program capable of quickly identifying molecules that show promise for future medicines. The program enables drug makers to comb through enormous databases of molecules to identify the ones that have sound medicinal properties.

Both Breneman and Dordick have licensed some of their discoveries to pharmaceutical companies. (See "New Tools for Drug Discovery" and "Predicting New Medicines" for more on their work.)

Russell Bessette, executive director of the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR), which has funded essential infrastructure in the biotechnology center, says Rensselaer is poised to continue to make significant contributions.

“Engineering sciences were always practically applied. The basic life sciences were little more that — basic — without a focus to create things like products or jobs. We now see the pendulum has moved. Doctors and engineers are now working together hand-in-hand developing practical devices that have life-saving impact on people and generate jobs.”

Palazzo believes Rensselaer’s brand of biotechnology research will yield tangible benefits for health and medicine, national security, and the environment, as the field tackles the prime challenges of the 21st century. “With the new interdisciplinary studies center and an extending corona of researchers across campus, the Institute is ensuring that it will be a leader in realizing the promise of biotechnology.”

Photo by Lonny Kalfus

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
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