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Microbial Science Initiative To Launch in Weekend Symposium

By Alexandra N. Atiya, Crimson Staff Writer

The long-malnourished microbe sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) are going to get a boost tomorrow, when over 200 scientists from across the Northeast will flock to the Science Center to attend the “debut” of Harvard’s new Microbial Science Initiative (MSI).

Having been discussed for almost two years, MSI is a program to bring together faculty from various departments—including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and earth and planetary sciences—to research integrated projects about life at a microbial level.

Its projects are as yet undefined, but could include such topics as researching the development of prokaryotic organisms, the symbiosis between microbes and other organisms and biodiversity.

Tomorrow, four professors involved with microbial research at Harvard will be speaking, along with four other professors from outside universities. The topics range from evolution on a microbial level to the impacts of microbes on the environment.

The event is partially intended as a forum for academic discussion and to unveil cutting-edge research, but also as the “kick-off event” for Harvard’s new program, which should spawn new faculty, research, fellowships and courses over the next few years.

“We are in a revolutionary time in microbial science,” said Jeffrey Professor of Biology Colleen Cavanaugh, one of the organizers of the symposium. “We now have the means to go after the bacteria and microorganisms that cannot be cultured.”

“The excitement of the MSI is that the technology you need to do these [projects] are in just about all of the science departments, but there might be only one, or maybe two faculty in a given department,” she said. “So this will physically get us together and bridge the departments.”

Cavanaugh added that a new interdisciplinary structure for this somewhat unexplored field is hugely helpful in drawing top junior professors to Harvard.

Several departments at Harvard have been looking to hire new faculty in microbial science, and found it difficult to draw appointments without offering avenues for integrated research.

This need to hire, combined with a desire to develop newer research in the area, pushed professors to establish microbiological research projects across departmental lines.

The discussion began almost two years ago, when three professors—Cavanaugh from organismic and evolutionary biology, Moors Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick in molecular and cellular biology and Daniel P. Schrag, a professor of earth and planetary sciences—were walking back to their labs after an FAS committee meeting.

Their conversation turned to the topic of microbial science, and how they could foster new research and lure new hires in the area. At that point, Schrag made an “informal proposal” that they begin the process of structuring independent microbial research on campus.

“The proposal was really, very much similar to what emerged,” said Schrag. “We thought, ‘Look, we really need to connect these different departments, and make a number of appointments, and with that we’ll stimulate a whole research activity and teaching activity that will create excitement here.’”

They soon contacted Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Roberto G. Kolter, who has his own lab at Harvard Medical School to conduct microbial research. Kolter, they said, was eager to get discussions started about microbial science started across the University.

“Microbial has been seen as a bit of a sleepy area,” Losick said. “But the field has gotten quite exciting all over again in the past 10 years or so, because of large-scale genome sequencing.”

While Kirby has not yet officially approved the initiative, the four professors spearheading the project hope to receive Kirby’s rubber stamp and to budget plans within the next few weeks.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Losick, adding that they had heard a lot of enthusiastic feedback from colleagues.

MSI has also garnered support from the executive committee of the life sciences, which is acting this year as a stand-in for a divisional dean.

“There is really an opportunity to develop in this area,” said Lyman Professor of Biology Andrew Biewener, who is on the executive committee. “We have some good people [in microbial research at Harvard], but we need to have larger numbers in order to recruit.”

This initiative could also affect undergraduates in the near future. Kolter hopes to have microbial courses for students by spring 2005, and possibly even a course for non-concentrators by the following fall.

Schrag added that the new interdisciplinary program—enforced by the other science initiatives cropping up on campus—will give students a way to see the bigger pictures in scientific research and take the “bacteria out of the test tube,” Schrag said.

Losick echoed this point, saying that integrated research is the most logical “cultural change” in science departments now.

“The next big challenge is to see this reflected in undergraduate education,” Losick said, adding that he would be quite excited to see new lab and lectures courses about microbial sciences in the next few years.

—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at atiya@fas.harvard.edu.

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