Second scientific retreat develops opportunities for MBL-UChicago affiliation

University Communications

Keeping up the momentum after their first retreat in Chicago this February, faculty and scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratory’s year-round and visiting scientist communities, the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory convened for a second retreat at the MBL in May. The MBL, located in Woods Hole, Mass., and the University of Chicago formed an affiliation last year.

Through wide-ranging, lively discussions about big research questions that the affiliation is uniquely positioned to address, the 190 retreat participants emerged with several key scientific themes for the University and the MBL to explore.

“There are two parts to an affiliation like ours: vision and strategy,” said Karl Matlin, professor in UChicago’s Surgery Department and co-chairman of the retreat committee, which was composed of University and MBL scientists. “In designing this retreat, our goal was to put both the vision and the strategy in your hands,” Matlin said to the gathering in MBL’s Lillie Auditorium.

“This was scientists getting together, discussing what they want the MBL-UChicago affiliation to become,” said Joel Smith, associate director of education at the MBL and co-chair of the retreat. “There was a palpable sense the affiliation offers unique opportunities for world-leading science: goals the individual institutions could not achieve on their own.”

Shaping a Vision

The retreat kicked off with the attendees discussing, in randomly assigned breakout groups, “Which important scientific questions are the affiliates best positioned to address at a world-class level?” These cross-disciplinary conversations generated a list of 35 compelling scientific questions, which the attendees evaluated later in the day. It eventually became apparent that the scientific questions could be sorted under a few broadly defined categories: Imaging; Computational Biology; Organisms and Seed/Collaborations, the latter being a cross-cutting request for more opportunities for MBL and UChicago scientists to interact through mechanisms such as seed grants for early research.

“This was an inclusive process in which everyone present had a voice, including a large number of MBL summer investigators,” said neurobiologist Steve Zottoli, an MBL adjunct senior scientist from Williams College and a member of the retreat committee. “Of the four emerging categories, everybody had a stake in one of them, or part of one. It was remarkable how the participants arrived at what they thought were the strengths of the MBL, the strengths UChicago brings, and what could be the best first steps.”

The “Imaging” category, for example, embraces imaging life across multiple scales, from atomic to ecosystems, and pulls in scientists from many disciplines, including biologists, physicists, computer scientists and environmental scientists. The “Computational Biology” category is also inclusive, with research ideas ranging from gene regulatory networks in developmental and cancer biology, to neural networks, to microbiomes in human and animal health, to global biogeochemistry networks. While the “Organism” category focuses on marine animals, it includes other model organisms, such as Xenopus and zebrafish, as well as marine microbial communities.

“We are moving our mindset from a two-institution view to a more unified one, which is the most important thing,” said Jonathan Gitlin, MBL’s deputy director for Research and Programs. “It’s the intellectual capital that really drives this affiliation. We have the opportunity to ask, ‘What incredible scientific questions can the MBL and UChicago get traction on, that nobody else can?’ Answering that takes thinking like one institution.”

“It’s important to realize that this retreat was a very positive starting point; not a fait accompli,” Zottoli said. “We will continue discussing [the scientific goals of the affiliation] all summer long in the MBL’s Whitman Center for Visiting Research, where I am on the planning committee.” To further engage MBL course faculty and visiting researchers, another retreat is planned for summer 2015 at the MBL.

From Vision to Strategy

On the second morning of the retreat, breakout groups met to identify the critical first steps needed to move forward in these emerging scientific areas. “This is the strategy part of the affiliation,” Matlin said.

Those strategic recommendations will be considered by the MBL and University of Chicago faculty advisory committees, which are responsible for fostering and developing the affiliation through collaborative research and educational initiatives. The UChicago faculty advisory committee is led by Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and senior advisor to the president and vice president for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago.

“There is a clear need for focused conferences on imaging, computation, marine resources, and other scientific priorities, with white papers as output. These will begin in fall 2014,” Shubin said. The MBL and UChicago faculty advisory committees will also start examining the scientific infrastructure at the institutions, he said. “What do we have, and what do we need to move forward in our collaborations?”

Welcome to the MBL

The second retreat also served as a welcoming orientation for many of the UChicago and Argonne faculty who had never visited the MBL before. Tours of the Loeb teaching labs, the National Xenopus Resource, the visiting scientists’ labs in Rowe and the Marine Resources Center were offered. A poster session and mixer launched the retreat on Friday night.

“These kind of visits leave people energized and transformed, when they see the resources that the affiliation brings to the table. Both Neil Shubin and I want to encourage more of them,” Gitlin said. To that end, the University of Chicago has set up an MBL-UChicago Connection Fund that enables visits between the campuses for students, scientists and staff, as well as joint workshops.

“Enormous Potential”

En route to achieving broad consensus on scientific themes that the affiliates could address, the retreat yielded an abundance of stimulating ideas for scientific exchange. Ideas flowed both from the breakout group discussions and from scientific talks (see retreat program).

For example, “how to deal with questions of scale across the sciences” emerged as an important question that the affiliates could effectively investigate, said MBL President and Director Joan Ruderman. “We have an opportunity to look in a large way from genomes to global cycles,” she said. “We are also are just starting to explore marine diversity, from the microbes that are estimated to be more numerous than stars in the universe, to marine organisms that may serve as good models for biomedical discovery,” she said. “There is enormous room for discovery here, and opportunities for translation into improved public health and for stewardship of the Earth for all future life.”