Q&A with Neil Shubin on the New UChicago Affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory

Professor Neil Shubin will provide faculty leadership for the affiliation with the MBL (photo by Rob Kozloff)

Professor Neil Shubin will provide faculty leadership for the affiliation with the MBL (photo by Rob Kozloff)

In June, the University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass. agreed to form an affiliation to strengthen historical ties between the two institutions and foster more collaboration in scientific research and innovation.

Neil Shubin, PhD, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, has been appointed Senior Advisor to the President and to the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories to provide faculty leadership and build collaborative programs between the institutions. As the affiliation officially takes effect today, Science Life spoke to Shubin about his role in the partnership, and what he expects it to bring to both UChicago and the MBL.

What kind of opportunities will this affiliation offer to UChicago researchers and students?

MBL is really strong in several areas. There’s a style of education they’re known for, and that is intense, hands-on learning, mostly in the biological sciences, whether it’s embryology, diversity in marine science or neuroscience. What we see in the Biological Sciences Division are opportunities for us to develop courses along that model at MBL, and to interact with existing programs at MBL. So there’s a large educational component, both at the collegiate level as well as the graduate and post-graduate levels.

In terms of research impact, that’s also very large when you think about the complimentary aspects of the two places. They’re very strong in ecosystem science, conservation, environmental science, regenerative biology, stem cell biology and imaging. These are all things that are aspirations for us as well, that would be complimentary to our own strengths. So if we think about, say, trying to get marine science and environmental science off the ground here in Chicago—and in a way we’ve always wanted to—this will give us an opportunity to do that in a novel way.

What would be a typical project there for a student or researcher?

I can envision several different models for that. The first would be seed grants for faculty collaborations at Woods Hole. So people would actually go to Woods Hole and set up laboratories there for a period of time to collaborate. The seed funds would get our faculty working there and utilize their resources, because they really have, in many ways, unparalleled resources for imaging, for the study of marine organisms, those kinds of things. We want our faculty to think about that in their own research and teaching.

The other is to develop conferences, courses and travel grants for our students and faculty to use. I can easily see us leading courses over there at both the graduate and undergraduate level that we couldn’t do here in the same way. In fact that’s one of our goals. I could see sponsoring a series of graduate level core courses, but also engaging our faculty in research enterprise, and likewise our undergraduates.

Since the signing was announced, I’ve received a number of direct emails from college students saying, “Wow, I came to the University of Chicago and I’d love to study marine biology, but we don’t have anything in marine biology. What can I do?” What I tell them is, number one, we actually do have marine biology on campus, but most just people don’t know it. And, number two now, yes, we have these opportunities to support internships [at MBL] for our students that we couldn’t do before. The same thing holds for graduate students as well.

What can UChicago offer to MBL for their part in this affiliation?

The piece that’s really important to this is it’s very synergistic. On their side, what we offer is a linkage of basic biological sciences to a medical center, which is literally on campus. That linkage to a clinical center and translational research I think is very important. I also think the linkage to Argonne National Laboratory is very important, as is our computational and informatics infrastructure. So again, it gives them sort of one-stop shopping for technologies, tools, resources and people that are important to their own research.

What are you looking forward to from this collaboration, either personally or for UChicago as a whole?

I’m going to speak very personally about my own research. We’ve done all these genome projects, and now that we know what genomes look like of all these different creatures, we want to understand how they develop, how they regenerate, how they evolve, those kinds of things. Oftentimes the best systems for asking these fundamental questions are marine systems, like fish, invertebrates and others. So the access to that kind of system, which we will gain in a new way, now, is really exciting for me personally.

Having a whole new set of colleagues is really important. I’m excited about that because some of the people there are really renowned in their fields, and in different fields than what we work on here, ecosystem science for instance. I’m looking forward to running conferences and being involved in the educational environment out there. The place in the summer is really electric. When you talk to people who’ve been there for courses or collaborations, they all come back saying just how intellectually exciting it is to be there. Frankly, a number of my colleagues and I are really looking forward to being part of that mix fairly regularly. I’ve had experiences on and off before, but now it’s going to be part of our lives.

To learn more about the long history of collaboration between UChicago and the MBL, check out this excellent feature from the UChicago News Office.

About Matt Wood (345 Articles)
Matt Wood is the editor of the Science Life blog and the social media specialist for the University of Chicago Medicine.
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