What began as an intellectual exercise now brims with cutting-edge research
As is often the case for ideas that end up becoming something truly special, the creation of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology had an inauspicious start. The concept was born out of whiteboard discussions between a small group of Cornell faculty members that included Tony Bretscher, Brian Crane, Ken Kemphues, John Lis, June Nasrallah, Ron Harris-Warrick and me.
We had been assigned an intellectual exercise of sorts by the external Life Sciences Advisory Committee, headed by Harold Varmus (president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) and by our provost, Biddy Martin (now chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison), to come up with an idea for dramatically changing the landscape of cell and molecular biology at Cornell. The concept that emerged was a relatively simple one -- to establish an institute made up of 12 world-class investigators who would be newly recruited to Cornell to address questions of fundamental importance to cellular function. Admittedly, the idea began as little more than a pipe dream, a "castle in the sky." However, with the dedicated support of Martin and Vice Provost for the Life Sciences Steve Kresovich, and through generous financial contributions from alumni like Sam Fleming and Sandy Weill, things began to take shape.
Certainly a key step in helping this dream become a reality was the identification and recruitment of an institute director. We sought an individual who not only possessed an outstanding scientific reputation, but also exhibited great scientific taste in order to identify top-flight investigators addressing some of the most exciting research questions in cell biology. Fortunately, we were able to attract just the right individual in Scott Emr, who at the time was a Howard Hughes investigator at the University of California--San Diego. Emr, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is a highly acclaimed researcher who has been honored for his research on the trafficking of proteins throughout the cell.
Emr's first decision was to name Bretscher, an outstanding cell biologist in his own right, as associate director to help the institute make a seamless transition into the Cornell community. Within a remarkably short period of time, Emr and Bretscher have been able to recruit four outstanding young investigators to Cornell (Yuxin Mao, Marcus Smolka, Chris Fromme and Fenhua Hu) to form the inaugural core of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology. Consequently, Weill Hall, which opened just a few short months ago, is already brimming with cutting-edge research activity.
One of the major goals ahead will be to successfully bridge the research activity in the institute with the studies being pursued in other biology laboratories throughout the campus and, perhaps most important, with the work of physicists, chemists and engineers at Cornell. It is becoming widely appreciated that an understanding of how cells function normally and what goes wrong at the cellular level in diseases like cancer or in neurodegenerative disorders will require the cooperative efforts of a broad range of scientific disciplines.
Especially important will be applications from the areas of nanoscience and microfluidics, the generation of novel approaches for imaging cells and solving the 3-D structures of proteins by X-ray crystallography and the development of new chemical strategies for the discovery of drugs. Cornell has outstanding strengths in the engineering and physical/chemical sciences that can help drive these developments and bring them to bear on the most pressing questions in cell biology. The ability of the Weill Institute to leverage these strengths will be paramount to ensuring its future impact and success.
It is always easiest to identify major milestones in hindsight. Thus, only time will tell whether the creation of the Weill Institute will mark a seminal turning point for the life sciences at Cornell. However, given its impressive start, there now is every reason to believe that our new institute, once only a dream, will indeed become a premier center for cutting-edge research.
Rick Cerione is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology in the Department of Molecular Medicine in the Vet College, and in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. He chaired the committee that developed the concept for the Weill Institute.