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New NIH Director Discusses Goals, Genomes ...and the Nerd Problem

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Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) who hoped Francis S. Collins, the new director of the National Institutes of Health, might include some cell biology in his Saturday address were not disappointed.

Speaking at Northwestern's Lurie Medical Research Center, the former head of the Human Genome Project gave a slide show about "splice donor sequences" and a toxic protein responsible for Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome worthy of any found in a medical or science lecture hall.

Nor was Dr. Collins likely disappointed with the composition of the audience - half graduate and postdoctoral students as UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares, in her opening remarks, said he requested.

Collins addressed personnel from the three universities - which have formed a research partnership called the Chicago Biomedical Consortium - and members of the public for an hour and a half this week on Northwestern's Chicago campus.

Tall and thin as, well, Obama, the 60-year-old came from behind the podium to discuss NIH's track record (US heart disease and disability are down; longevity is up), funding (84 percent of its budget goes to extramural grants including $1 billion to research in the Chicago area) and return on investment (the drop in US heart disease deaths cost each US taxpayer $3.70.)

Collins, known for being willing to "challenge current thinking," as Northwestern University President Morton Shapiro said in opening the event, presented an agenda for NIH that included translational technology and comparative effective research as well as community and global health initiatives.

He proposed a bigger research tent in which "wacky" scientific ideas receive support, public databases like the Genome project benefit everyone and science is not regarded by school children as "nerdy."

While affirming that NIH's workforce of 325,000 people is well positioned for the future, Collins also admitted the US may be losing the war against obesity and "this may be the first generation that doesn't live as long as their parents." He also lamented the lack of people from "disadvantaged groups" currently participating in science.

Asked during the question and answer period how to retain biomedical researchers who leave science for "jobs in banking" - laughter erupted - Collins said "tenure track assistant professorships" were far from the only science careers available.

(A clip from Collins' appearance on the Colbert Report in which he explains the difference between "personalized" and "socialized" medicine also drew laughs.)

Asked how to improve biomedical education, Collins - who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research this year - said biology is now an interdisciplinary "digital science" and boundaries are passť.

Today's physicians need to "think" not "memorize and regurgitate" facts said Collins and they also need to master math and biostatistics. "Not being able to understand a Bayesian analysis will no longer be tolerated," he said.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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