A bit about my new gig….

The summer break here at George Mason is coming to an end, classes begin in about two weeks and I thought it would good to write a bit about my new life as a plain old professor here at the Schar School. When I left NSF in January, I had negotiated my return to the University to reflect the public policy experience involved in running the Biological Sciences Directorate. Additionally, it had become clear to me that after 23 years in one administrative role after another, I wanted a change in the direction of more time to teach and do research. So when it was approved that my faculty line would be moved from the Krasnow Institute to the Schar School here in Arlington I was really jazzed. There was the additional benefit that the commuting distance would be halved.

I did start though with some trepidation. I had effectively been out of academia for more than three years—that in spite of NSF’s program for supporting rotator to stay involved with research at their home institution. That might work at the Program Director level at NSF, but it’s really not practical when you are responsible for an entire directorate. As a result, I was very rusty from the standpoint of both teaching and research—the two things I would be expected to do as a professor. Hence, it was a real confidence builder to get a grant in the first weeks that I was back and to actually jump back into teaching (rather than worrying about it).


I find that these past months have been some of the most satisfying of my life from a professional standpoint. The sheer pleasure of quiet time to think about science rather than have to instantly react to some crisis is something not to be underestimated. And I have found that my interests extend across a much wider landscape than before I left Mason for NSF. My current grant is on AI. The next one will probably be on metagenomics. Who knows what will come next!

Chronicle on Woods Hole

Here’s an interesting piece from The Chronicle Review by Sam Kean on my favorite marine lab, the MBL in Woods Hole….

Money quote:

This writer soon discovers what Olds means, about both the science and the embarrassment. I’d never seen a sea urchin before, and in short, there’s no easy way to sex them. During a class I’m probing one — a black, spiky tennis ball — with a syringe, looking for soft spots around its (I think) mouth. Injecting seawater supposedly forces it to spew sperm or eggs out its (I think) rear, at the top. He/she is hard to pierce, like sticking needles through a leather work glove, but I drive it home.

Problem is, urchin sperm and eggs look alike at first. After many long days in the lab, my brain is fried. And I’m taking only a dumbed-down version of the core “discovery” class on embryology. In the nicest possible way, our instructors laugh and say my class has no idea what graduate students go through.

Beyond the question about sea urchin reproduction, the piece raises some questions concerning MBL compared with its Long Island neighbor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

But what Cold Spring had for years that MBL didn’t was the director James Watson, co-discover of the double-helix structure of DNA (and a former summer faculty member at the marine lab). Watson had pretty much stopped working in labs by 1968, when he took over at Cold Spring, but his name and vision drew many eager, hungry scientists. Cold Spring started off with no more than MBL had, possibly less, but has since jumped into a different stratosphere: In 2006, it raised $90-million from private donors, compared with the marine lab’s $12.5-million.

Borisy hopes to add new facilities soon, possibly in biodiversity and regenerative medicine, both of which Maienshein says fit neatly with a marine lab. Scientists also praise Borisy’s new programs in fields like microscopy, a traditional strength at MBL.

But the education laboratories need up to $15-million worth of work first. Plus, the marine laboratory’s core strengths — teaching and providing summer venues for scientists — cost more than they bring in, and probably won’t inspire the proverbial little old lady to donate a million dollars. The education certainly won’t wither away or face cuts, says Borisy. But however much scientists adore the place for what they learned there, some are resigned that the MBL of 30 years ago may not look the same in another 30.

I’m not sure I agree with Sam Kean regarding the fairness of the comparison. CSHL’s focus on molecular biology was being driven by an economic engine that gave us the likes of Amgen and Genentech. That revolution is now behind us I think. A new revolution will have as its engine the need to address the challenges of climate change, microbial diversity and energy security. MBL may end up better placed with its existing strengths combined with some judicious investments.


My take on the neuroethics of the "Decade" project

I write about Decade of the Mind project in today’s Sunday Washington Times….

Selected quote:

As a neuroscientist, I urge Americans to embrace the neuroscience revolution but soberly discuss the ethical and legal implications of what these changes might mean. We can do this by urging Congress and the new administration to endorse the National Decade of the Mind Project and the concomitant investment into a healthier and more prosperous nation