MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 3
January / February 2006
Life Sciences at MIT:
A History and Perspective
Reflecting on the Report of the
Task Force on Medical Care
Promotion and Tenure for
Interdisciplinary Junior Faculty
Reviewing the Committee on
Graduate School Programs
The Challenge and Rewards of Faculty-Student Interactions in the Residence Halls
Troubling whistle-blower article
Regarding the Report of the Task Force on Medical Care for the MIT Community
Valentine: Faith; Valentine: Invention
Mildred Dresselhaus
OpenCourseWare at Home
MIT Retirement Plans: A Brief Summary
MIT Rated 7th in Latest U.S. News Ranking
% of MIT Constituencies Using OCW
OCW Impact on the MIT Community
Printable Version

Life Sciences at MIT: A History and Perspective

Phillip A. Sharp

MIT, as a technology-oriented institute, initially considered life sciences from the perspective of engineering and public health. The MIT faculty, in collaboration with Harvard Medical School faculty, was part of the origin of the Harvard School of Public Health. Food processing and toxicology were also important in the early stages of life sciences at the Institute and came to be organized into departments related to food and nutrition. The recruitment of Frank Schmitt to the Department of Biology in the 1940s expanded biological research in biophysics and biochemistry.

Then, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick and the birth of molecular biology, MIT reoriented much of its life sciences to this new area with the recruitment of senior faculty, such as Salvador Luria and Boris Magasanik, and the development of a large number of junior faculty. The Department now has approximately 55 primary faculty and has outstanding programs in many areas including genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology.

The “War on Cancer” was launched by the Nixon administration, and with the leadership of Salvador Luria and David Baltimore, MIT applied for funds for a center, associated with the Department of Biology, to conduct basic research related to cancer.

The remodeling of an old candy factory as the new Center for Cancer Research was aided by funds from the Seely Mudd Foundation and the building was occupied in 1974. Establishing the Center led to an expansion of the faculty in the Department of Biology by about 10. Even though the faculty initially received 75% of their salary from the National Cancer Institute’s Center Grant, everyone volunteered to carry a full teaching load in the Department.

The Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), formed in the 1970s and led by Irving London, solidified a longstanding relationship between faculty at MIT and those at MGH and the Harvard Medical School (HMS) complex. HST has been tremendously successful in both research and teaching. One major focus of HST is to encourage physical scientists and engineers to do research at the interface of technology and clinical medicine.

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Negotiations led by David Baltimore between Jack Whitehead and MIT resulted in the creation of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in 1982. This free-standing Institute with its own endowment, space, and investigators is closely associated with the Department of Biology and, more recently, with other departments at MIT. All of the permanent investigators at the Whitehead Institute have academic appointments at MIT. The intellectual focus of the Whitehead Institute started with an emphasis on developmental biology but this was defined in the broadest of terms. The Institute is widely recognized as being amazingly successful with an outstanding staff and training program. The addition of the Whitehead Institute expanded the biological research community at MIT by about 16 faculty-level investigators.

The ’80s brought several other major changes in the life sciences community at MIT. This included the controversial closing of the Department of Applied Biological Sciences (Nutrition and Food Science) and the merging of its faculty into other departments.

In the mid-’80s, following the early vision of Hans-Lukes Teuber to study the brain as the source of the mind, a group of faculty renamed the Department of Psychology to Psychology and Brain Sciences. In 1986, this group merged with the neuroscience program of Whitaker College and HST to form the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS). Subsequently, additional faculty slots were committed to joint appointments between BCS and Biology. During this period, the NSF-funded Biotechnology Processing and Engineering Center was established in the Department of Chemical Engineering. This Center involved many faculty members in other departments, particularly Biology, and encouraged the expansion of biotechnology on campus.

In 1993, BCS was moved to the School of Science. The Center for Learning and Memory was established in 1994 in association with BCS and Biology with a grant from the Fairchild Foundation. Research in BCS ranges from cognitive science to the molecular genetics of processes important in learning. The Department has continued to grow with the development of two new institutes (see below). The 1990s also brought the establishment of a core course in biology as a General Institute Requirement. This and related educational activities, even week-long courses for faculty, greatly expanded the appreciation of advances in life sciences across campus.

Pat and Lore McGovern came to an agreement with MIT in 2001 to establish the McGovern Institute on Campus with a profile similar to that of the Whitehead Institute. However, unlike the Whitehead, the McGovern Institute is part of MIT. This Institute will ultimately have 16 faculty composed of six existing faculty and 10 new slots. The latter are to be funded from the endowment of the McGovern Institute. The McGovern Institute seeks to advance the understanding of brain functions such as recognition, perception, and decision making.

Barbara and Jeffry Picower came to an agreement with MIT in 2002 to establish the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. This Institute incorporated the earlier Center for Learning and Memory with an expansion of its investigators. The Picower Institute is also part of MIT. One objective of this Institute is to explore learning, memory, and cognition, including the molecular basis of these processes.

The above two institutes and BCS are now housed in a spectacular new complex of three buildings connected by a Mediterranean atrium crossing the railroad tracks. All faculty in the three units have appointments in BCS, and many also have joint appointments in other departments. Including faculty slots yet to be filled in the new complex, the final number is projected to be 45. With associated undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate researchers, the total complex will probably contain about 500 people. This is believed to be the largest contiguous research space devoted to the study of neuroscience in the country.

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Many faculty members at MIT contributed to the creation of the Human Genome Initiative at NIH, which ultimately led to the sequencing of the human genome. Eric Lander, investigator in the Whitehead Institute, who was among these faculty, applied for a Genome Center Grant in 1990 to begin to develop the technology and computational tools for the sequencing. The Genome Center also produced both a genetic map and a physical map of the genome to make interpretation of the short tracts of sequences possible. For the first few years, the Center was housed in space in the Center for Cancer Research and then moved off campus into the Technology Square area. During this time, the Whitehead Institute managed the Genome Center’s research funds. The Center was a major part of an international effort that produced the public sequence ahead of schedule and under budget. This success was matched by a multifaceted research program utilizing large-scale experimental methods and computation to investigate problems that can best be addressed in an interdisciplinary fashion.

As a research institute for large-scale life science projects, particularly in genetics, the Broad Institute was established in 2003 with a gift from Eli and Edythe Broad. The Broad Institute is associated with MIT, Harvard University, and the hospitals in the Harvard Medical School complex.

There are faculty in the Broad Institute with primary appointments in all of the three academic and medical organizations. The new home of the Broad Institute on Main Street adjacent to the Whitehead Institute is scheduled to open this coming spring and additional faculty are being recruited. The Institute has an unusual structure with the appointment of many associated faculty from across the three sponsoring organizations. These investigators will collaborate with each other and potentially with the faculty of the Broad to address problems that are too complex for individual labs. There are now 58 associate faculty active in interactions with the Broad. It is anticipated that there will be eight new full-time investigators hired in the Broad, who will have appointments mirroring those of its current staff, including about five with primary appointments at MIT. The research funds of the Broad Institute will be administered through MIT and, at present, these funds sum to about $83 million.

Research Expenditure Change
Change from 1970-2005: Research Expenditures (click on image to enlarge)

An important question about the history of life sciences at MIT is its success in providing a strong educational experience for the next generation. I believe MIT has met this challenge and in fact leads the academic community in this regard. One indication of this was the inclusion of biology as a GIR. The campus has also helped to create the biotechnology community in Boston and enhanced the educational programs in the nearby medical community. One quantitative indication of the scale of biological and biomedical research at MIT is the research volume on campus supported by the Department of Health and Human Services through NIH (see graph). In 2005, this amounted to approximately $180 million or about 32% of the total on-campus volume. This HHS on-campus research volume has grown rapidly over the past two years due to inclusion of the Broad Institute. For example, before 2003, the HHS support was $93 million, about 20% of the total volume. The rate of growth of the total NIH budget is shown for comparison to that of on-campus research. Obviously it has grown much more rapidly over the last two decades. The 2005 research volumes for some of the above units are approximately: Biology, $25 million, Center for Cancer Research, $16 million, Whitehead Institute, $29 million, Brain and Cognitive Science, $4 million, Picower Institute, $12 million, HST, $10 million, and the McGovern Institute, $7 million. Some of these research volumes should grow significantly during the next few years with completion of staffing.

There have always been a large number of research programs in life sciences at MIT in departments and centers other than those mentioned above. In 1998, a new departmental academic unit was formed, Biological Engineering (BE), to promote the fusion of molecular life sciences with engineering. At this interface, BE integrates molecular and cellular life sciences with a quantitative, systems-oriented engineering analysis and synthesis. The Computational and Systems Biology Initiative, CSBi, as a virtual center is closely associated with BE and Biology and includes faculty from eight other units. Among its objectives is the further development of systems-level analysis of cells and more complex organisms. In 2005, the Institute’s faculty approved the offering of an undergraduate major in Biological Engineering.

The history of life sciences at MIT is similar to that of other areas, a series of significant advances and continued evolution to remain at the forefront of the discipline. A wonderful celebration of this history is the appointment of the neurobiologist Susan Hockfield as President.

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