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New Generation of Biomedicine

Converging biology, physics, mathematics and engineering research could create innovative solutions to major health issues such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease. The University of Dayton is well-suited to model such a transition, a former National Cancer Institute deputy director said during a campus visit.

Anna “Ann” Barker, professor and director of Transformative Healthcare Knowledge Networks at Arizona State University, visited the University of Dayton on Nov. 30 to deliver the 2017 Schuellein Lecture in the Biological Sciences.

Barker directs ASU’s efforts to develop new research models that leverage convergent knowledge, innovative teams and novel funding approaches to better prevent and treat acute and chronic diseases. She also is co-director of Complex Adaptive Systems at ASU, an organizing construct to understand and solve multi-dimensional problems in the biological and social sciences.

Before joining ASU, Barker served as deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, where she led strategic programs such as the Nanotechnology Alliance for Cancer and the Cancer Genome Atlas, which emphasized the synergy of large-scale and individual research, public databases and clinical studies to more effectively detect, prevent and treat cancer.

“Throughout her scientific and administrative career, Dr. Barker has championed innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and convergence in new models for addressing scientific challenges,” said Carissa Krane, University of Dayton biology professor and Schuellein Chair in the Biological Sciences, who sponsored Barker’s visit. “She is a thought leader in the field of transformational research and personalized medicine. Her vision for implementing transdisciplinary research has resulted in major advances in the field of cancer treatment.”

Barker’s lecture in the Science Center auditorium addressed the explosion of biology-related “big data” being produced by advanced technologies such as next-generation genome sequencing, nanotechnologies, imaging and sensor-driven digital wearable devices. This digitization of biology creates a need for a new generation of biomedical science that results from the convergence and integration of biology with physics, mathematics and engineering.

Scientists who embrace complexity and participate in these new collaborative research models could create new fields of study that help solve diseases such as cancer. This transformation will require them to confront scientific training, cultural and funding barriers. Students will need to be prepared for this convergence as they transition into graduate schools and professional careers.

Barker said the University of Dayton could model this new approach.

“I think places like this do have the potential to change the world,” she said. “You can create teams here that can model answering (scientific) questions that, frankly, institutions that may have more people and potentially more expertise might actually never even want to think about doing — much less doing it.”

Ideas such as convergence and transdisciplinary research tend to be modeled in smaller environments — as opposed to larger, more unwieldy institutions — to show they can work and to define the parameters that enable such a transition.

“I think a university like this has a lot of potential,” Barker said. “You have a lot of smart people here.”

University President Eric F. Spina, Provost Paul Benson, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jason Pierce, School of Engineering Dean Eddy Rojas and John Leland, vice president for research and executive director of the University of Dayton Research Institute, among others, attended the lecture.

“Dr. Barker’s lecture focused on many of the major themes that Dr. Spina has outlined in the strategic vision for the University of Dayton, as the University for the Common Good,” Krane said. “She was very impressed by the transdisciplinary research and training efforts that are going on at UD.”

The Schuellein Chair was created through gifts totaling $2.5 million from the estate of Robert J. Schuellein ’44 — a Marianist brother, alumnus and former professor who helped establish the graduate program in biology before leaving the University in 1964 to join the National Institutes of Health. Schuellein oversaw NIH research grant administration and training programs until his retirement in 1983. He died in 2011 at age 91.

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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