Landmark affiliation strengthens biology scholarship

UChicago and Marine Biological Laboratory share common history, collaborative values.

The University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, have formed an affiliation that will strengthen both institutions’ missions of leadership and innovation in scientific research and education.

The affiliation builds on shared values and historical ties between Chicago and the MBL, which was led by University of Chicago faculty members for the first four decades of its existence. The MBL has been a driving force in biological discovery and research training since its founding in 1888. Both institutions have reputations for scientific excellence, highly collaborative cultures that draw top biologists from around the world, and programs that will benefit from the affiliation’s combination of strengths. Each institution’s Board of Trustees has approved the affiliation, which took effect July 1, 2014.

“National and international collaborations are increasingly essential in biological research as we pursue fundamental problems that require many perspectives and specialties,” said University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “I am delighted that the University of Chicago is moving forward with the MBL to develop new possibilities for discovery and for training the next generation of science leaders. The MBL has an extraordinarily valuable role as a source of innovation and creative collaboration in modern biology.”

“This affiliation will preserve and strengthen what is special about the MBL, while enriching science at both institutions by expanding our research and educational programs,” said MBL President and Director Joan V. Ruderman. “University of Chicago scientists helped define the mission and history of the MBL, so this exciting new chapter also nicely highlights our earliest roots as an intellectual destination.”

New opportunities for biological discovery

The MBL’s intellectual culture has developed in part through its renowned summer programs, which attract more than 1,700 scientists and advanced students from around the globe each year to participate in intense, transformative research and advanced-level courses in a range of biological subjects. The lab has a year-round staff of more than 300 employees, about half of which are scientists and scientific support personnel working in fields ranging from microbial evolution and cellular mechanisms of camouflage to ecology and global climate change.

One of the first results of the affiliation will be a competitive grant program, in honor of the MBL’s 125th anniversary, designed to stimulate innovative, interdisciplinary research that will lead to novel ideas and biological discovery.  The multi-year program will offer faculty and scientists from the MBL community, UChicago, and other institutions the chance to form new, creative collaborations.

Marine Biological Laboratory workspace
The MBL has been a driving force in biological discovery and research training since its founding in 1888. Photography by Daniel Cojanu

Other efforts are underway to foster areas of research and training that could benefit from an affiliation. For example, the MBL’s expertise and facilities in areas ranging from molecular mechanisms of basic cellular processes to global scale ecosystem analysis will create new opportunities for the University to develop programs in marine biology and ocean sciences. Scientists at both institutions see unique opportunities to build collaborative research and education programs in many areas, including neuroscience, evolutionary and developmental biology, regenerative biology, cell biology, microbial sciences, molecular engineering, ecosystems science, and global environmental change.

To help provide faculty leadership for the affiliation, University of Chicago Professor Neil Shubin has been appointed Senior Advisor to the President and to the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories. Shubin works with MBL leadership to ensure a smooth academic transition for the new affiliation and help build collaborative programs between the institutions. He also is forming a faculty committee to advise on strategy and implementation for research and education program development.

“Developing strong links with the MBL will have deep meaning for the University of Chicago research community by giving us the means to develop academic programs not otherwise possible,” Shubin said. “If we blend appreciation for what makes the MBL unique with a vision for the future, we can expand the opportunities for students and researchers worldwide who have yet to experience the MBL’s extraordinary culture.”

Shubin led a University of Chicago faculty committee that concluded late in 2012 that an affiliation with the MBL could be formed to greatly benefit both institutions. Scientists associated with the MBL also have strongly endorsed the affiliation.

“The MBL’s renowned role as an international crossroads for research and advanced research training will be greatly enhanced by this affiliation, and by the many strengths that the University of Chicago brings,” said Joshua Hamilton, the MBL’s Chief Academic and Scientific Officer. “Linking MBL’s leadership in the biological and environmental sciences with the University, its medical center, and Argonne National Laboratory and its other affiliations, offers exceptional opportunities for basic and translational science and for expanding our tradition of transformative educational programs.”

Like all independent scientific labs, the MBL has faced financial pressures in recent years even as its scientific programs have continued to thrive. The affiliation will bring new resources with the University’s help, including efforts to expand access to federal and private grants, cooperation in philanthropic efforts, and expansion of educational programs. The institutions also expect to realize some cost savings from administrative operations as the MBL benefits from the University’s favorable insurance rates, financial strength, and high-performing investment management.

Affiliation serves global community of scientists

Close ties between the MBL and the University of Chicago extend back to the founding of both institutions. Charles O. Whitman, who became founding director of the MBL in 1888, also was a founding member of the UChicago faculty when classes began in 1892, and served as the University’s first chair of zoology. Frank R. Lillie served as MBL’s second director until 1925, while he was zoology chair and later dean of biological sciences at UChicago. Jacques Loeb, another early UChicago faculty member, founded the Physiology Course at the MBL in 1892, which continues as one of the core hands-on research training courses offered in the summer for advanced graduate and postgraduate students. Buildings on both campuses are named after these and other members of the University of Chicago faculty.

UChicago faculty members see value in building and anchoring additional programs in the off-season, including training courses for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, modeled on the MBL’s successful research-based summer courses. Other new programs could benefit high school students. While the lab has steadily developed more off-season programming, an active university partner could help anchor programs and attract more students and faculty from institutions worldwide.

The University of Chicago has an unusual depth of experience in leading international scientific collaborations. The University has been the prime contractor for Argonne National Laboratory since that lab’s founding in 1946. The University also partners with a consortium to manage the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois.

“These affiliations between the University and nationally vital labs have brought substantial benefits to the labs, the national and international science community, and science in general,” said Zimmer. “As a University, we have gained experience for decades in operating labs that not only produce great science on their own, but are an essential resource for scientists from multiple institutions around the world, a community we are committed to serving.”

The MBL remains a separate 501(c)(3) corporation registered in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and retains the MBL's endowment and other assets for MBL programs. The MBL's Board of Trustees continues to provide guidance to the institution going forward. The University helps provide oversight and administrative resources, similar to its stewardship of other high-profile labs.

Leaders at both institutions believe the new affiliation has far-reaching potential to fulfill a lasting vision of the MBL that meets writer Lewis Thomas’s description of the lab as the “National Biological Laboratory.” Bruce Alberts, President Emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor of the journal Science, commented on the affiliation, saying it would help move biological discovery forward.

“The MBL in Woods Hole has played a very important role in strengthening the biological sciences throughout its long, distinguished history,” Alberts said. “Its many outstanding courses—with a focus on connecting young scientists—continue to create the random collisions between people and ideas that are essential for innovation. I am very pleased to learn that the University of Chicago will further strengthen its ability to serve world science in these and many other ways.”

Originally published June 12, 2013 by UChicago News.