University officials said they aren’t concerned about the direction or momentum of the Life Sciences Initiative, despite the fact that the two people originally chosen to lead it have changed their minds.

Paul Wong

Scott Emr, a molecular medicine and biology professor at University of California at San Diego, and biological Jack Dixon were selected in October 2000 to co-direct the LSI.

Since then, both have decided to either stay at, or return to, San Diego. Emr made his decision in January, after former University President Lee Bollinger announced he would be taking over the reins at Columbia University. Last week, Dixon accepted San Diego’s offer to become their Health Sciences Dean for Scientific Affairs.

Dixon, who received his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Los Angeles and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, said his choice was a personal one and not intended to reflect any doubt regarding the future of the LSI.

“This would be an opportunity for me to give back something to the UC system,” Dixon said in a written statement.

“I will always be proud of what we achieved during my early leadership of the Life Sciences Institute,” he added. “The Institute building is going to be a great place to do science because it was designed by scientists for scientists.”

But before the Institution can really take off, whoever takes over as its director needs to recruit the brightest and the best scientists away from already renowned institutions.

Several officials said recruitment is the biggest challenge facing the LSI.

“It’s up to us now to build the reputation of the Life Sciences Institute here by recruiting the best people,” LSI Associate Director Alan Saltiel said. “The biggest challenge is going to be recruiting great people who share the vision of the Institute.”

To bring professors to the LSI, the University must convince scientists to leave places like UCSD and the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, which houses the world’s largest human genome sequencing center.

“There are a number of places around the country that are trying to do similar things,” LSI Managing Director Liz Barry said. “The Whitehead Institute has been around for a while and they’ve really done something special there. But Michigan is really an up-and-coming state in this field. We are a rival for places like that.”

Barry added that because of steps already taken to find a new director for the LSI – the formation of a search advisory committee and a promise from President-elect Mary Sue Coleman that filling the position will be one of her first priorities when she arrives in Ann Arbor Aug. 1 – she does not believe Dixon’s leaving will greatly affect the Institute’s momentum.

“President Coleman has committed to making our decision very quickly,” Barry said. “Because of that, I don’t think we’ll miss a beat.”

But members of the advisory committee said replacing Dixon won’t be easy.

“The time frame is the challenge. We really need to have somebody soon. We should be continuing to hire this year,” said committee member and chemistry Prof. Carol Fierke. “But I think there are a lot of good people both on campus and off campus, so I think it is doable.”

As far as recruiting others, Barry and Saltiel said the LSI has a few qualities going for it, including the strength of the University’s other departments and schools, its financial support, the design of the facility itself, the quality of life in Ann Arbor and the collaborative idea behind the Institute.

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