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Alice Huang

Alice Huang

Chair of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Science's Advisory Council, delves into the challenges and rewards of doing complex science

In November 2009, Alice Huang became the chair of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences (IBBS) Advisory Council. Made up of senior members of academia and professionals, the council meets yearly and offers strategic advice on issues of importance to the IBBS.

Huang, who last year was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, earned her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins and then pursued a research career. Her notable discoveries include identifying and characterizing a noninfectious version of a virus known as defective interfering viral particles; identifying an enzyme associated with vesicular stomatitis virus; and demonstrating for the first time that viruses can contain different combinations of surface markers, which can lead to infection in different hosts. A former member of the university's board of trustees, she is now a senior faculty associate in biology at the California Institute of Technology.

What were some of the issues you faced in last November's advisory council meeting, your first as president?

HUANG: The meeting focused on multidisciplinary research, how the complexity of science is forcing collaborations, whether that's between clinical and basic researchers or between the IBBS and other parts of the university. Some of the questions that scientists are now asking involve such a tremendous proliferation of data that no one individual can accomplish these projects alone.

Among other things, such complex science demands that investigators have access to large, expensive equipment, computing facilities, animal facilities, high-powered imaging equipment, sequencing capabilities.

Does Hopkins have the infrastructure that's needed to do this work?

HUANG: The IBBS has gone a long way to provide this infrastructure. Its research centers encourage diverse interactions, and the cores of IBBS, in such areas as transgenics and microarrays, provide some of the support that is needed.

The cores are also trying to expand their reach into other parts of the university; the more investigators they serve, the more they can offer to everyone. Moreover, leadership at Hopkins should encourage more groups to use these facilities so that the expensive machinery can be maintained and updated as necessary.

What else is needed to support complex science and collaborations?

HUANG: Investigators need to be flexible, especially when their research leads to unexpected findings. It's often difficult for scientists, even quite experienced ones, to get financial support to explore such findings, especially when they need to sort of switch fields to do so. It's important that Hopkins support these kinds of endeavors.

What can Hopkins do to increase this flexibility?

HUANG: One point that the Advisory Council discussed is that there are very few professional [endowed] chairs in the basic sciences. I come from Harvard Medical School, where we had many chairs in basic and clinical sciences. As an assistant professor at Harvard, I even had an endowed chair. An endowment can help a scientist be unafraid to switch into a new area of research, especially if the endowment is large enough to cover research costs as well as the professor's compensation. Hopkins needs to focus on soliciting more of these chairs for the basic sciences.

We also discussed the idea of innovation grants: seed money for successful mid-career researchers to explore a new idea. That type of money is invaluable, and there is virtually very little of it at Johns Hopkins and at most other institutions. Innovation grants could also be an effective fundraising idea.

Where would the funding come from?

HUANG: One, of course, would be individual philanthropists. Another could be philanthropic foundations. When I was dean at NYU, I used to visit foundation presidents and discuss certain projects with them. I always had projects in mind that I knew investigators at NYU had an interest in, or around which faculty could form potential teams with expert capabilities. Foundations and even federal funding agencies are always looking for new ideas or potential breakthroughs to fund. So when a request for applications would come out from these groups, NYU was perfectly positioned to apply for and get the funding.

Even with funding, do you think that the culture of basic science research is willing to embrace the challenges of translating discoveries?

HUANG: Hopkins, like many excellent research institutions, still seems to have a culture that is very much focused on excellence in curiosity-based science.

I'm not surprised that some scientists only wish to make discoveries of what is unknown; it is a much freer and challenging type of science, driven only by curiosity. Translating such discoveries into diagnostic tools, drug therapies or other useful clinical applications is often a long, hard slog full of disappointments.

What is important about doing this translational work?

HUANG: I believe there's gold in what is already discovered in the basic sciences, and most people haven't really mined that knowledge very well.

Often, basic scientists make a discovery and years later a clinician reads about it. For example, the work on the cancer drug Gleevec took almost 20 years to come to fruition. Researchers first found the enzyme tyrosine kinase in a mouse cancer cell line. Years later, researchers found that this enzyme was constantly turned on in human leukemic tumors. Finally came the development of a small molecule drug that would inhibit the kinase.

It took so long because it took different people to pick up on different aspects of the problem. It also took persistence by a few scientists who believed that such an approach was feasible.

-Interview by Melissa Hendricks

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