For life sciences investigators, a decade-long experiment reveals the power of interaction. by Paige Blankenbuehler and Roger Meissen
most researchers would argue that, when it comes to science, collaboration is central to success. Just over a decade ago an MU experiment in brick and mortar set out to prove it. The working hypothesis went something like this: Spontaneous, frequent interaction among researchers from multiple disciplines makes for better investigations and investigators. And construction of a new life sciences center, one designed specifically to encourage such comingling, would be bound to expedite breakthrough discoveries. Today that center, the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, has largely confirmed its planners’ vision, demonstrating to scientists and scholars here at MU and around the world that, if knowledge is power, then shared knowledge is power2.
hether it’s in the daily stream of students through McQuinn Atrium, the chance conversations between scientists in its hallways or the postdoctoral researchers in the Catalyst Café, the Bond LSC has created a physical environment in which it’s difficult for occupants not to interact.
“This place is intended to be a coordinated organism, not a hotel for good scientists,” says Jack Schultz, director of the Bond LSC since 2007. “It’s been a fascinating but slow process to see investigators gain from working with others outside of their field who overlap in an aspect of their research.”
Since its beginning, the center has reaped the fruits of this shared labor. In 10 years, its scientists have garnered approximately $140 million in grants, more than offsetting the $65 million initial cost of the center. Overall, its investigators receive about 30 percent of grants they apply for, and the center ranks fifth in yearly research expenditures among all MU colleges and divisions.
Both the National Academy of Sciences and National Institutes of Health agree this sort of convergent science, cutting across disciplines, is the future. The former highlighted the Bond LSC in a 2014 report as among those programs that excel in being exceptionally “nimble in their focus” of steering faculty toward interdisciplinary convergence and novel research approaches.
hemists know that particles — with the right amount of energy and enough opportunity to collide — can be greater than the sum of their parts. Bonds break between atoms and new molecules form.
This concept guided planners seeking to ensure that the center reached beyond “academic silos.”
“You can’t force people to do collaboration, which is why the whole concept of collision was a good idea,” says Mark McIntosh, professor and chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at MU. McIntosh was part of the LSC’s original planning team.
‘The days of the scientific tinkerer are over — no more sitting alone in your laboratory working on isolated problems’
“It’s remarkable how many people will talk to somebody and go ‘I didn’t know you did that,’ or ‘I didn’t know that kind of expertise was around here.’ It gets people thinking about different ways to do what they’re doing.”
This idea contributed to the building’s DNA. Laboratories are relatively small — sometimes as small as 300-400 square feet — to discourage staff from holing-up behind closed doors.
Instead, long, open corridors connect researchers on each wing, while the open expanse of McQuinn Atrium leads to interaction in passing. It’s not uncommon to see scientists talking between floors or across the atrium’s railings. Even amenities such as the building’s café were carefully designed to bolster a sense of community, with tables the right size for discussion and interaction over a sandwich or cup of coffee.
“The days of the scientific tinkerer are over – no more sitting alone in your laboratory working on isolated problems. Now is the time of teaming up to solve bigger problems,” McIntosh says. “For this campus, it really was a huge leap forward in the way we were thinking about these things.”
While the idea was originally to secure federal funding for a state-of-the-art plant science research facility, the late Roger Mitchell, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, soon realized a more unified approach to research space could better serve MU in drawing in new, talented researchers. That effort soon brought together campus leaders from agriculture, medicine, molecular biology and veterinary medicine to think about how to combine their needs.
McIntosh joined 14 others in 1994 to begin the building’s planning.
With the support of Senator Christopher Bond, the project secured a $30 million earmark from NASA and another $30 million the State of Missouri. Donors pitched in $5 million more for planning, lab equipment and specific projects. That financial support clinched the plan to build, and 32 research teams started moving into the building in the summer of 2004.
Cheryl Rosenfeld and Matt Will share space — and ideas — in the Bond Life Science Center.
heryl Rosenfeld was one of those original denizens.
Cheryl Rosenfeld and Matt Will share space — and ideas — in the Bond Life Science Center.
Coming into the LSC, Rosenfeld’s research initially focused on how maternal diet affects gender ratios in mice. But when one of her undergraduate students observed that mother mice on a high fat diet didn’t seem to have the desire to build a nest for her pups and seemed more anxious, Rosenfeld looked to a colleague for advice on how to assess these observations.
With the help of Matt Will — who researches the motivations and effects of addiction in mice at Bond LSC — she shifted her focus. That advice spurred a decade of successful research focusing on how Bisphenol A, a chemical that shows up in a variety of consumer goods, influences everything from parenting abilities of mice to what genes are triggered in their offspring (see Illumination’s Fall/Winter 2011 edition for more on Rosenfeld’s Bisphenol A findings).
“My research in the past 10 years has taken on a whole different direction thanks, in part, to Matt Will,” Rosenfeld says. “Matt explained how we could measure this anxiety-like behavior in rodents and I was like, ‘Really?’ That’s when we started going down the route of exploring behavior, using night vision cameras and mazes.”
Close interactions like this help other investigators connect the dots to decipher gene functions. Plant scientist Walter Gassmann, for example, saw his work in molecular genetics blossom across kingdoms. When his lab cloned a gene for plant immune responses, the researchers noticed the same gene occurred in other plants, humans and mice. This suggested it has universally important functions. So Gassman reached out to Michael Garcia, who uses mice to study degenerative neuromuscular disease.
“It was over beers at a happy hour that we decided to work together,” Gassmann says. “Our lab was the first one to find a function for this gene, and the question became what does it do in other organisms?”
The pair is now exploring this question by inserting Garcia’s mouse gene into Gassmann’s model Arabidopsis plants.
“We want to see if the same mouse gene can take up the function of the plant gene,” says Gassmann. “It’s a collaboration that never would have happened before this building, and just by working near our collaborators’ labs, my students and post doctoral students have really benefitted.”
Some of these benfits even extend directly to the public.
Saturday Morning Science is a program of free talks aimed at promoting scientific engagement and connection with the wider world. Started around the time of the LSC’s construction, the program often packs the center’s 250-seat Monsanto Auditorium. Saturday Morning Science’s loyal following — many devotees come every week, year after year — shows that, when done right, general-interest audiences will eagerly embrace science-related subjects.
Bond LSC researchers Marc Johnson and Dawn Cornelison now organize the event, and take pride in the program of talks that range from life science to physics, chemistry to archaeology and beyond.
“The LSC is a great place for us to be as scientists, but Saturday Morning Science is an example of why it’s a benefit for everybody else that the LSC is here,” Cornelison says. “The connections that keep Saturday Morning Science going are made a lot easier by the kinds of interactions Bond LSC fosters. Sometimes I’ll ask one of my collaborators to give a talk, and other times a talk might lead to a collaboration.”
Saturday Morning Science recently connected Cornelison with Maike Krenz , a heart researcher at MU’s Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center. Cornelison primarily studies skeletal muscle. Krenz focuses on congenital heart defects.
“I know next to nothing about cardiac biology, and we had a mouse mutant that we thought might have changes in its heart,” Cornelison says. “Chris Baines, also at Dalton, gave a great talk a few years ago on heart attacks, so I called him and asked for help. He connected us with Maike and she did echocardiograms for us, and now we’re going to help her with a skeletal muscle project she’s working on in return.”
Left to right: Mannie Liscum, Walter Gassmann and Michael Garcia.
his sort of collaboration is just what relative newcomer David Mendoza-Cozatl looked for in an academic home. He says coming to the Bond LSC was a no-brainer.
Left to right: Mannie Liscum, Walter Gassmann and Michael Garcia.
Mendoza-Cozatl’s lab focuses on how plants acquire nutrients from the soil and how plants move those nutrients into seeds. Mendoza-Cozatl arrived in 2011, and since then he’s worked with engineer Heather Hunt to bring their students together to feed off of each other’s ideas.
“A clear problem with science is that when you get too specialized in something, you forget what’s going on around you,” Mendoza-Cozatl says. “Sometimes the only thing it takes is to talk to other guys to find a solution to your problem.”
Mendoza-Cozatl thrives on making these connections — so much so that he’s recently branched out. Thanks to a National Science Foundation 5-year CAREER grant, he now welcomes student journalists into the lab to work side-by-side with science graduate students on plant molecular biology experiments. The journalists then report the experience online through writing and multimedia.
“How are journalists going to write about science if they haven’t experienced the scientific process or [don’t] understand why it’s important? When you actually work on experiments, you have a better idea of what’s going on and how the process works,” Mendoza-Cozatl says. “Scientists need to learn how to communicate and journalists need to know more about how science works, so this sort of endeavor is useful for everyone.”
One litmus test for success is the ability of researchers to reel in money.
Groups like the Bond LSC’s virologists highlight how the LSC helps secure competitive grant funding. Just this year the group was awarded more than $11.25 million from the National Institutes of Health to study unique problems related to HIV, Ebola, hepatitis and other viruses.
“We have a lot of momentum that comes, in part, from the pure talent of my colleagues but also from the collaborative approach of the center,” says Donald Burke, an investigator in the virology and immunology core. “It’s been easier to recruit collaborators and that collaboration gives us more leverage in applying for grant money.”
National and international recognition for their research bolstered the virologists’ plans to join with investigators across the MU campus to form a Virology and Molecular Therapy Institute. Over the last decade, investigators associated with the center published more than 250 scientific articles and presented their findings at over 100 international and national conferences, according to an executive summary of the Virology and Molecular Therapy Institute.
This sort of research output doesn’t surprise McIntosh. “They all have a unique set of expertise, needs and different set of collaborators,” he says. “That makes them a strong central unit where they can build bridges and build real strength.”
McIntosh credits early decisions to recruit virologist David Pintel as a foundation for this success. Pintel fit the criteria of a forward-looking leader with a proven ability to secure the type of federal grants ths Bond LSC sought.
“Dr. Pintel likes to surround himself with visionary and productive people. He is a strong collaborator and is very outward looking instead of inward looking,” McIntosh says. “Using him as a focal point to recruit virologists has been a great experiment and it worked beautifully.”
ightening budgets and shifting policy goals have pushed federal agencies to seek more direct, real-world problems in research. The number of NIH research project grants — its primary funding mechanism for investigator-initiated research — fell by 34 percent from 2003 to 2013, according to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Partly in response to these restricted budgets, organizations such as the National Science Foundation now require most grant applicants to show how their research will promote scientific education and public outreach while, at the same time, creating specific benefits to society.
That gives an edge to scientists who work collaboratively. “The world is pushing all scientists to become more relevant,” Schultz says. “The future of science will look more ‘applied’ in the next 10 years.”
Relevance also hinges on sharing Bond LSC’s research. Schultz makes it his mission to turn the Bond LSC into a science communications hub. A four-year, $1.5 million grant in 2010 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute got the ball rolling. Schultz started a curriculum that brought MU undergraduate journalism and science fellows together. The student journalists learned how to tell complex scientific stories. The student scientists, meanwhile, learned how to portray their work in an understandable and concise way.
As this project enters its final year, Schultz hopes a burgeoning effort to start a science and technology communications institute will continue the HHMI work. Along with the MU School of Journalism and the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Schultz is part of a team forming plans that will continue to bring much-needed science communication skills to journalists and scientists alike.
“This collaboration never would have happened before this building… just by working near our collaborators’ labs, my students and post docs have really benefitted.”
Although in early planning stages, this institute could take the scientific ideas of the LSC in a direction that better connects with the world.
“With MU’s excellence in life sciences and in journalism, we can become a national leader in making science more understandable and meaningful to more people,” Schultz says.
Looking to the future, Schultz is urging his scientists to seek out ways to branch their networks further out into the university. Take epigenetics, for example.
“People in biology are realizing that the epigenetic phenomenon really influences almost everything we work on,” Schultz says. “It has potential to change our minds about the way things work from a molecular and cellular level, right up to the ecosystem.”
He noted that three Bond LSC labs have added epigenetics to their research. His own lab is slated to to join that effort next.
Rosenfeld is also on board. She’s spent years studying how environmental factors can switch on certain genes that affect physical traits and behavior, but Schultz’s matchmaking helped her see how many possible collaborators exist around campus.
“It took Dr. Schultz spurring an effort to initiate new epigenetic hires for us to look at this and realize we already have a huge contingency here,” Rosenfeld says.
“Now we’re trying to pool resources, and are holding the Mizzou Epigenetics Symposium and a monthly epigenetics discussion series to bring our people together. This has really helped us solidify a better game plan and to give more structure to those already working in this area.”
This sort of teaming up is exactly how Schultz wants the Bond LSC to move forward. “We’ve seen real growth in community and buy-in to this team philosophy since I arrived here seven years ago,” he says. “Our position is, ‘Bigger isn’t better, more integrated is better.’ This is the way we’d like to grow.”