In Perspective

By David Chao, PhD, President and CEO

In modern biological research, new technologies and methods are growing ever more important as scientists ask increasingly probing and comprehensive questions.

From the beginning, Jim and Virginia Stowers recognized that surrounding researchers with sophisticated, cutting-edge technology would be a necessary condition for building a world-class research institution. Rapid, convenient, and well supported access to technology has remained a critical cornerstone of the institute’s operating philosophy. Today, the institute dedicates about a third of its annual scientific budget to its technology centers and core facilities. This heavy investment in technology provides members with ready access to some of the world’s most advanced instrumentation, some of which is custom-built and not yet commercially available.

Hundreds of years ago, science was often a solitary pursuit. Individuals might need to grind their own lenses for a handheld microscope and record observations with their own pen and ink drawings. The institute’s most recently purchased million-dollar super-resolution microscope is a good example of how much things have changed. For centuries, microscopes could not resolve features closer together than the wavelength of light, the so-called “diffraction limit.” When viewed with a standard microscope, features below the diffraction limit blur together and cannot be visually separated. With some clever optical tricks, the institute’s new super-resolution microscope enables observations well beyond the diffraction limit. Unlike the classic image of a scientist alone in the laboratory, breaking through the diffraction limit requires coordinated contributions from biologists, physicists, IT experts, and software engineers.

In addition to investing heavily in technology, Jim and Virginia Stowers were equally committed to following an enterprising approach. In their vision for the institute, innovation and initiative apply just as much to its culture and organization as they do to its technological infrastructure. For instance, in response to the need for individuals with the skills and personality to work across different disciplines, the institute created research advisor positions. Unique to Stowers, these highly trained specialists act as internal consultants to help scientists develop and apply novel methods to solve biological problems. Positioned at the intersection of research labs, technology centers, and core centers, research advisors share expert perspectives, offer specialized skills, and facilitate interactions among groups with expertise in different disciplines.

Articles in the following pages introduce some of our resident research advisors and highlight the many ways their knowledge has proved indispensable for different research projects’ success. In this issue, we also celebrate Peter Baumann’s selection as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Jerry Workman’s election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I hope you will enjoy reading about the institute’s enterprising approach, its focus on teamwork and technology, and some of our recent individual and collective accomplishments.