The University’s first vice president for research says he hopes to raise the University’s research profile by starting new research centers in the fields of autism, computational biology, science policy, energy, sustainability and neglected diseases.
Vice President for Research Dr. Leo Chalupa, who started at GW last April, said he has created committees of faculty members from departments across the University to assess the feasibility of at least two of these new research centers, and hopes for these six areas to become themes of research at GW.
In May, Chalupa created a committee for autism research. He said this week he expects the group to submit a plan in about two weeks outlining the necessary resources needed to create a successful autism research center.
“The reason I took this approach is because when I was at my previous institution, the University of California-Davis, I started five different centers that followed this plan, and they are all extremely successful, and in fact one of the most successful was in autism many years ago,” Chalupa said. “It’s one of the premier places in the world.”
Dr. Valerie Hu, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is the chair of the 15-person committee. She said she has been working on autism research for more than five years and had been working on the possibility of creating an autism research center, but her plan was much narrower than Chalupa’s vision.
While Hu said her center would have specifically focused on the molecular aspect of the disease, Chalupa’s vision was to bring together many departments within the University that work on autism issues.
“I am really excited about this,” Hu said, adding that she became interested in autism research because her own son suffers from the behavioral disorder. “I couldn’t have possibly imagined the scope which Dr. Chalupa wanted to bring to GW.”
The field of autism research, Chalupa said, is growing in popularity, and millions of dollars in research grants, both from the federal and non-federal sectors, are available.
“I went and spoke with a neurologist who heads the National Institute of Mental Health,” Chalupa said. “The reason I talked to him about this is because he feels that autism is a field that should get more research. It’s part of my job, finding the people with the money, federal and non-federal, and telling them what’s going on here. He was very, very supportive. Extremely supportive. I was extremely encouraged by it.”
Even when a plan is in place, however, a number of questions must be answered before an autism center can be created, Chalupa said.
“Where is the space going to be? We have problems here in Foggy Bottom to identify the right space. Are we going to hire the right faculty? How many? At what levels? What kind of equipment would it take? These are the kinds of details to get right before going forward,” Chalupa said.
Chalupa said the Science and Engineering Complex – for which the Board of Trustees has approved preliminary funding – would be essential to having space for this type of research center, as well as to attract prominent faculty to the project.
Going forward, Chalupa said the Virginia campus is another space option that could work for new research centers, adding that the campus already hosts GW research centers, including the GW Solar Institute, which focuses on solar energy.
Chalupa said, however, that the proposed Science and Engineering Complex could have the biggest effect on the six potential research centers he hopes to implement within the next five years.
“That is going to be a tremendous boom for GW,” Chalupa said. “That, if it is done right, and in constant with these initiatives, that could just put us on a whole other level, because that should be fantastic new space right in the heart of the campus, next to the medical school, and really make them work in a great way.”
Donald Lehman, executive vice president for Academic Affairs, said creating this institute would catapult “GW into the ranks of the top-tier research institutions.”
“As many of our existing centers and institutes already do, they will help us address our goal of ‘moving GW solidly into the ranks of the first-tier educational institutions,’ by providing opportunities for our graduate students to do research with faculty members in forefront areas of national concern and it will enhance our ability to provide research experiences for our undergraduate students,” Lehman said in an e-mail.
University President Steven Knapp has pledged $5.4 million over a three-year period, beginning in 2008, to increase the University’s research efforts. Included in the $5.4 million budget is a “Chief Research Officer’s Startup Fund” of more than $1 million specifically designated to jumpstart new research undertakings like the ones Chalupa has proposed.
This article appeared in the September 24, 2009 issue of the Hatchet.