By David Chao, PhD, President and CEO
Much scientific progress stems from new ways of seeing things. New knowledge and frameworks enable existing observations to be reinterpreted and connected in new ways while new technologies literally allow the unseen to become seen. Perhaps most importantly for institutions like the Stowers Institute, new people bring a fresh perspective and energy to the research enterprise.
New members who join us each year bring new approaches and perspectives to stimulate the Institute’s research at all levels. For instance, the Institute has an ongoing commitment to recruit and invest in assistant investigators—those laboratory leaders who have just completed their training and are launching their independent careers. This issue of the Stowers Report introduces you to Sarah Zanders and Ariel Bazzini, our most recently recruited assistant investigators.
In addition, the Institute serves as the host institution for about 130 undergraduates, predoctoral researchers, and postdoctoral associates. These trainees come from many different backgrounds from around the world and each brings a distinctive perspective and expertise. The fresh perspective of a mind unclouded by experience often leads to unexpected scientific advances.
In a similar vein, this issue’s cover story on prions serves as a case study of how new knowledge, frameworks, and technologies provide a novel way to look at and address a decades-old biological problem. Prions are a class of proteins involved in pathologies such as mad cow disease. Most infectious illnesses spread because a bacteria or virus moves from one host to another. However, in the case of prion-based conditions, disease spreads because proteins with pathological three-dimensional shape move to a new host and serve as templates for the new host’s proteins to adopt the pathological shape.
For decades, the focus of prion research was on their role in disease. With the discovery that some prions are involved in normal cellular processes and not in disease, scientists looked at prions in a new light. One of these scientists was Investigator Kausik Si, who years ago saw a potential role for prions in maintaining memories in the nervous system. Another was Assistant Investigator Randal Halfmann, who saw a role for prions in normal yeast and mammalian physiology.
The change of perspective that prions might be helpful rather than harmful has opened up whole new areas of research. Not surprisingly, as pioneers in this new field, both investigators have also been developing new technologies for observing the molecular behavior of prions.
As you enjoy this issue of the Stowers Report, I hope you will be inspired by the many examples of how the Institute’s research is often driven by new ways of seeing things.