Bringing a mission to life

At the Stowers Institute, the mission set forth by founders Jim and Virginia Stowers continues to inspire employees and shape growth.
November 1, 2021
Feature

By Bonny Moseley

The story of the Stowers Institute’s beginning may seem straightforward: Jim Stowers Jr. was going to be a doctor but changed course and started the company that became American Century Investments. After years of financial success, he and his wife Virginia used their vast wealth to found the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.

Dig a little deeper, though, and one discovers that our founding is rooted in generosity and a strong desire to make a difference to humanity.

In the 1990s, as Jim and Virginia Stowers sought to create the best biomedical research facility in the country, they encountered doubters and naysayers left and right. That didn’t matter, though, not to Jim. He had full confidence in his dream and believed one could do whatever they set their mind to if they just had the determination and the drive.

Jim and Virginia Stowers during construction of the Institute

Their determination was born in part from their own health issues. Jim had a bout with prostate cancer, which was found early and treated successfully. Several years later, Virginia had surgery after a breast cancer diagnosis. Facing cancer led them both to realize that they wanted to help others, and they had the assets to make a real difference. For Virginia, it was simple.

“When I found out I had cancer, I was very angry, I was very fearful, and I was very sad,” Virginia shared in a 2000 interview. “I didn’t want anyone else to go through that.”

Making the dream a reality

Their initial vision—cancer research—soon broadened to foundational biomedical research to figure out the underlying mechanisms of health and disease, and the mission of the Stowers Institute was formed, carefully and thoughtfully written by Jim and Virginia: “Make a significant contribution to humanity through medical research by expanding our understanding of the secrets of life and by improving life’s quality through innovative approaches to the causes, treatment, and prevention of diseases.”

The first step was to build the best research institute in the world. They wanted to free scientists to follow their creative ideas and perform groundbreaking research and set up a model where labs received generous financial and technical support. It meant investing their fortune of nearly $2 billion, but it was well worth it to the Stowerses.

“We wanted to give back something more valuable than money to the millions of people who made our success possible, and we thought giving them a better life through science would be the best way to do that,” said Jim in 2000.

Virginia had confidence in Jim’s dream, and equally important, she had confidence in Jim. Just as he had made American Century a success, he would do the same with the Institute, but this time, they would do it together.

“When we decided to do something with science, I said I really want to be involved in this,” Virginia said in an interview shortly after the Institute opened, and she was from day one.

Virginia’s impact

In the beginning, her work revolved around planning the design of the Institute but in later years, she would often attend Institute events, celebrations, poster sessions, and more. Graduation ceremonies for the Graduate School were a particular highlight, marked on her calendar sometimes two years in advance. Virginia was a common sight at the Institute until her passing earlier this year, but “her imprint is on the Institute everywhere one looks,” says Chair of the Board of Directors Richard Brown.

Jim and Virginia wanted the building to be impressive from the start, to offset any doubts top scientists might have about joining an upstart facility in Kansas City, away from the already-established research communities on the coasts. Virginia knew the environment was key, that it needed to be a place where people would want to come to work.

“When people walk in, whether it’s their first time or their hundredth, they feel proud of being here, they feel invited into this facility that’s state-of-the-art,” says Judy Zimmerman, head of Research Services. “Not only are we doing fantastic science and research and fulfilling that piece of the mission, but we’re doing it in an environment that is beautiful and warm and inviting and allows our members to be proud.”

Virginia weighed in on layout and materials, selecting wood for paneling and furniture, fabric for chairs, and limestone and slate for flooring. She knew scientists needed good light, leading to the Institute’s emphasis on open spaces and windows, allowing outdoor elements to shine through. The expansive ten-acre campus was filled with flowers, fountains, and walking trails. An art collection was cultivated so the scientists could enhance their workspaces with pieces that spoke to them.

Library at the Institute

If you build it, they will come

All of these elements came together to create what many visitors have called one of the most beautiful scientific laboratory campuses in the world. Investigator Scott Hawley, PhD, filled one of those new labs in 2001. Many things appealed to him—Jim and Virginia’s sense of family, their insistence that researchers be allowed to focus on what they do best—but he also appreciated the Institute itself and the lack of impersonal sterility common at so many other institutions.

“Here, the beauty is everywhere and carries into each space,” including the labs, says Hawley. “Creativity in thought really thrives under conditions of high aesthetic and beauty.”

Within a few short years, those beautiful buildings housed top-notch, brilliant investigators, the most cuttingedge technology available, and expert support scientists to help the labs work quickly and efficiently. There was a synergy about the place, says Scientific Director Emeritus Robb Krumlauf, PhD, where growth snowballed as the creative, excited scientists at Stowers then recruited other excellent scientists.

Indeed, over the last twenty years, Stowers has been home to four National Academy of Sciences members, seven fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and three Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators. Researchers have been recognized with significant grants and awards, from prestigious National Institutes of Health and Pew grants to an American Cancer Society Professorship, as well as Searle Scholar and Basil O’Connor Scholar awards.

Institute makes an impact

All those achievements underscore the essential element of the Institute: the science. In 2003, Investigator Linheng Li, PhD, published a significant work in Nature, describing a part of stem cells called the niche. It was just one of the many groundbreaking publications and important discoveries to come out of the Stowers Institute. In the years since, many more discoveries have been made. One such discovery, from the Krumlauf Lab, contributed to the creation of a new drug for osteoporosis. Other research is furthering our understanding of diabetes, congenital birth defects, infertility, Alzheimer’s disease, blood cancers, and much more.

“The knowledge our Institute has generated during its first two decades has not only proven Jim and Virginia’s detractors wrong but has also become a shining example of what living our mission means day in and out,” says Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, PhD.

Virginia once said, “I think I’d like to be remembered as having done something for humanity,” and to Sánchez Alvarado, there is no doubt that both she and Jim will be remembered for just that.

“Jim and Virginia’s vision and generosity have made a difference to the thousands of scientists around the globe who have cited the work of our scientists in their own work; to the hundreds of scientists we have trained and the hundreds they in turn are training,” he says. “And that difference is both known and unknown, as the generation of knowledge always creates ripples in the fabric of history that are difficult to fathom but always help humankind better understand itself and the world around us.”

Training future generations of scientists was vital to Jim and Virginia, which is why the creation of the Graduate School in 2012 could be considered one of the Institute’s biggest milestones. Hawley, its founding dean, fondly remembers how much Virginia loved talking with the predoctoral researchers. Her passing this year has only strengthened his passion for teaching. For Hawley and other Grad School leaders, their work in the Grad School is a fundamental way they help fulfill the Stowers’ vision.

The first class of The Graduate School at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research with Mr. and Mrs. Stowers

 

“I feel it is my job to do the best science possible and contribute to the mission of science outside my lab. I get to do both of those things as part of the Grad School,” says Associate Investigator and Vice Dean Sarah Zanders, PhD. “It is also satisfying to know that Stowers trainees use skills they gained here to do great science when they leave.”

More than science

The mission of the Stowers Institute is rooted in science but encompasses much more, such as maintaining balance. For Hawley it is about balancing priorities in both work and personal life. “Jim and Virginia recognized that we all had lives and it was important to them that we be able to fully live those lives,” he says. Hawley aims to create that same level of support in his lab.

Executive Vice President of Administration George Satterlee does the same on a bigger scale, creating an environment of support, inclusion, and equity for the Institute through the efforts of his team. Satterlee worked closely with Virginia and believes that to create great science, you must create great scientists.

“Virginia had such a beautiful humility about her, and such tremendous wisdom about what it is to be human,” says Satterlee. “Our goal is to create an environment that understands all those challenges that come with what it is to be human.”

To that end, in the last several years the Institute has increased its training opportunities, established a program to provide seminars and support for all facets of home and work life, and created an executive role to strengthen diversity and inclusion.

“When you lose a founder, and now we’ve lost both, it’s a good time to reroot ourselves in the values and mission that those founders espoused, and recommit ourselves to the vision they had,” says Satterlee.

Zimmerman does that by making decisions with the knowledge that she is working with endowment funds and a desire to be a good steward of that gift. In balancing Virginia’s original vision with changing needs, decisions like repurposing an original piece of furniture are rewarding for Zimmerman, as they preserve the history and move it into the future, allowing the Institute to keep manifestations of the decisions made by Virginia.

For Zanders, that means being a good steward of the endowment. “I am always acutely aware that the Stowers money spent in my lab is not mine,” Zanders says. “It shapes the decisions we make in the lab each day and helps me manage the money in a way that maximizes our contribution to science. We ask if ‘the juice is worth the squeeze’ for each experiment.”

Stowerses’ gifts resonate with community

The impacts of Jim and Virginia’s actions are vast and far-reaching. Kansas City has benefited from the creation of three successful enterprises, American Century Investments, the Stowers Institute, and BioMed Valley Discoveries, a clinical stage biotechnology company established to translate basic research findings into potential treatments. Students have benefited from the educational programs offered by the Graduate School. Employees from all over the world have enriched the nearby communities. But for some, like Susan Weigel, the impact is personal. Weigel joined the Institute early on and has witnessed the tremendous growth from fewer than thirty employees to more than 500.

“What an impact they’ve had on everyone who’s worked here, to help us support our families. What a gift that has been,” says Weigel, associate dean for administration and registrar of the Graduate School. “They’ve given a gift to humanity with the research that’s being done, but everyone here has been given a gift, too.”

Jim passed away in 2014, Virginia in 2021. The losses are felt personally by so many, but the science has continued without pause. Twenty years after its founding, the mission of the Stowers Institute remains unchanged, with memories of its founders continuing to resonate.

Related news: Celebrating 21 years of the Stowers Institute