Early Friday morning, Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, began his speech with an anecdote.

Varmus, presenting at an academic symposium as part of the inauguration events for new University President Mark Schlissel, said he has known Schlissel for more than 26 years. As a Nobel Prize winning researcher and a long-time colleague, Varmus was perhaps one of the most qualified to speak at the symposium welcoming Schlissel — a career biochemist and researcher in his own right — to the University.

“He and I shared a room when I was on sabbatical,” Varmus said, “I knew then that, while Mark did have a bright future in the sciences, he also had administrative contention. I distinctly remember one day when I overheated the water bath and he chewed me out — in a very nice way.”

The symposium, titled “Sustaining the Biomedical Research Enterprise,” featured a diverse panel of distinguished University professors. The six-member panel discussed the challenges with today’s research environment and how to overcome them.

Varmus descrbed three crucial discussion domains: how the National Institutes of Health governs daily life, how the training process works for researchers and where the funding dollars come from and how they are used.

Though all of these topics were thoroughly discussed during the conference, the symposium focused on debate more than on action. Many solutions to the problems in modern day research were suggested as ideas, but few were discussed through to the possibility of implementation.

Toward the end of his speech, Varmus touched on the topic of whom to train as future scientists.

“The basic idea is to reduce the number of trainees who are entering a field in which they are not going to succeed, without compromising the quality of those who do succeed,” Varmus said.

According to Varmus, the need for selectivity is due to a limited amount of funding available for researchers, and these funds need to be allocated to those who are more likely to flourish.

“It’s the dissonance between that thrilling aspect of the science that we all do and the fact that we’re living in a world that is not appropriately sized for what we can actually afford to do,” he said.

Suggesting changes in the institution of graduate student training, Chemistry Prof. Anna Mapp proposed shorter Ph.D. programs as a means to help students to thrive in any discipline, not just their field of focus.

“One thing to think about is how to create Ph.D. programs that aren’t so focused on training faculty, but think about what the requirements are for being a successful faculty member, and how those intersect with being successful in different walks of life,” Mapp said. “One of the most powerful things you can teach students is flexibility.”

The morning’s events kicked off a day of festivities centered on Schlissel. He was officially inaugurated as the 14th president of the University in a ceremony later in the afternoon.

Schlissel’s full inaugural address can be viewed here.

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