Q & A with James Olds, Director of the Krasnow Institute

Posted: July 22, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: Over the summer, the Daily Gazette will publish interviews with 11 deans, 2 institute directors, and the vice president for University Life focusing on what was successful in their departments last year and what the George Mason community can expect this year. This is the third article in the series.

By Robin Herron

James Olds is director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, an internationally recognized brain research center, which merged with George Mason just over a year ago.

Q. What are some of the institute’s successes and achievements of the past year?

A. The institute now represents, at least on the Fairfax Campus, a very significant component of George Mason University’s biomedical research portfolio. We have about 40 Ph.D.s and M.D.s in the building now; since we moved into the Krasnow laboratory facility in May of 1997, we’ve brought in about $10.8 million of sponsored research money to the university from places like the National Institutes of Health and the Sir John Templeton Foundation. Our folks publish in journals like Science and Nature; and we have developed an international reputation in the field of integrative neuroscience. At the same time, we are rapidly expanding in the areas of machine learning–basically reverse engineering the human brain for computer applications–and in the area of translational research from neuroscience. That is, taking the results from the basic research laboratory and applying them in clinical environments–Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, learning disabilities, dyslexia.

Jim Olds
James Olds

We’re very proud to have hosted yet another Nobel laureate this year, Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, which brings to five the number of Nobel laureates associated with the institute. And we’re particularly proud to have brought on board MacArthur Award winner Stu Kauffman.

We’re deeply into the planning process for the Krasnow Institute expansion–we hope to start construction in 2005–and we’re working with a number of potential partners in the capital area to make that happen. We’re very excited about finally being able to get the wet lab space that we so desperately need to expand our activities. We also hope to acquire a capability for functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] on the Fairfax Campus.

Another key component that’s been very important to us over the last year started as a white paper on neuroscience and the future of neuroscience at the university by myself, Dean [Daniele] Struppa [of the College of Arts and Sciences], and Dean [Menas] Kafatos [of the School of Computational Sciences], and other senior faculty members, including Bob Smith [Psychology]. That white paper charts out a course, using neuroscience, to catalyze the movement of this university up the U.S. News & World Report research university ladder very, very quickly. That fits into our very important bridges to Inova Fairfax Hospital and Georgetown University Medical Center.

Q. Can you elaborate on the white paper?

A. The white paper looks at a particularly interesting case history of the University of California at Irvine, which is in Orange County. Orange County has a lot of the same demographics as Fairfax County. UC Irvine was chartered in 1965, so it’s relatively new. The white paper focuses on how Irvine was able to use neuroscience to catalyze its shift from commuter school to being at the top of the ladder of the U.S. News & World Report ratings and [how to] take the lessons learned and apply them here.

Dean Struppa , Dean Kafatos, and I have agreed to work to bring together the various academic neuroscience degree initiatives across the campus and unify them in a single, multidisciplinary neuroscience Ph.D. program. We’re going to move very quickly to bring together faculty from the School of Computational Sciences, from the College of Arts and Sciences, and research resources from Krasnow to put together an extraordinarily credible program. I also believe that there needs to be an undergraduate focus in neuroscience. It would be wonderful to expose our undergraduate population to the top-of-the-line science that goes on here.

Q. Krasnow operates on research dollars primarily, but have the state budget cuts affected you?

A. Not substantially, although we did take a very small cut last year along with all the other academic units. We continue to be very appreciative to the university for its support, and actually a very significant amount of Krasnow’s research support now comes from state E&G [Educational and General] dollars. If you include our research operations, we’re about a $2.5-million-a-year operation. Also, the institute now has a significant private support component from a variety of foundations and private individuals.

With the merger into GMU, an enormous amount of financial credibility came to the institute, and that’s really helped.

Q. Other than the financial aspects, what are some of the other benefits of being merged with George Mason?

A. Having a role to play in terms of the academic future of this university, and having an important role at that. We care very deeply about the future of this university, and our faculty members are faculty of this university by and large, so it’s very, very important for us to be able to contribute in concrete ways, ranging from teaching in the honors program to bringing folks like Lynn Margulis or Lech Walesa to the university.

Q. Has the advisory board had a major impact in terms of the direction that you’ve been going?

A. Sure. They are my sounding board. I think any dean or director at the university finds that kind of advice invaluable, both in terms of strategic direction and also in terms of feedback on day-to-day decisions. And I think the Advisory Board brings into the George Mason University family folks who may not have been involved with the university before who are very interested in brain diseases and now are involved with the university. I think our Advisory Board is the only school or institute advisory board that’s majority women, and it’s got some of the most distinguished individuals in the national capital area–and actually around the country.

The other component is that President [Alan] Merten and I have been at a variety of events held for Krasnow on the other side of the river in the last six months or so. Krasnow is known out there because of our work on brain diseases, but now folks in D.C. and in Potomac, Maryland, are learning about George Mason University because of that. These are very influential decision makers who realize that from a macro perspective this is going to be one of the great research universities of the next century.

Q. Is anything coming up in the immediate academic year?

A. We are very hopeful to put the funding together for our brain imaging [fMRI] facility that will be located in our ground floor area. We’re very excited about a senior faculty recruitment that we’re very hopeful about. We’re bringing in some top-notch people for our seminar series, as always, in the fall. And we’re looking forward to a gala, which we hope will be held in Charlottesville for the institute and George Mason University in the fall of next year.

Q. In regard to the MRI, would that be operating in conjunction with Fairfax Hospital?

A. Ideally, there would be twins, one at Fairfax Hospital, one here. The scanner at Fairfax Hospital would be used exclusively for research on clinical patients, and the one here would be used exclusively for normal volunteers, with the idea being that you compare the clinical results with the normal results.

Q. Is the MRI tied into the expansion of the building?

A. Yes, it is. Scanners need care and feeding in terms of shielding and vibration issues, and they’re really big machines, so yes, we’re going to need some bricks and mortar.

Q. You’ve worked closely with Fairfax Hospital in many areas. Are any other developments emerging?

A. In my role as state commissioner on the [Virginia] Alzheimer’s [Disease and Related Disorders] Commission, our lead initiative is to put together a virtual comprehensive Alzheimer’s center for the Commonwealth of Virginia on the model of what currently exists in Arizona and Florida. I’m very excited about that because Krasnow is going to play a key role in facilitating the Northern Virginia component of that–and Fairfax Hospital potentially will be also.

There will be tendrils of this center all over the state, ranging from databases and respite care centers on the one hand to basic molecular biology research on the other hand, and brain scanning and memory clinics. It’s a center of mass for the research effort to find a cure for dementias.

There’s one other component. An elephant has moved into the neighborhood of Northern Virginia and that elephant is the Howard Hughes biomedical research facility going up at Janelia Farm [in Loudoun County]. That ‘s very good for George Mason University and very good for the Krasnow Institute, but it’s going to forever change the character and magnitude of biomedical research in Northern Virginia. In its own way, it’s as important as the NIH being located in Bethesda.

Q. Do you foresee that you’re going to have some ties with them?

A. I’m convinced of it. We’re the research university that’s going to be closest to them and I think there’s going to be a lot of potential for synergies there.

Q. What do you see as some challenges coming up for Krasnow in the future?

A. How to continue our explosive growth without losing our institutional charisma. By that I mean the scientific “buzz” that goes on around the world at various scientific meetings. Currently that buzz is that Krasnow is the place to be for cognitive sciences.

Q. Where will Krasnow be in five years?

A. I hope people will think of Krasnow in the same sentence that they think of the McGovern Institute [for Brain Research] at MIT, or the Salk Institute [for Biological Studies], or the Santa Fe Institute. For us, the real prize is an international reputation for doing absolutely top-quality science. And it would be nice along the way to make serious contributions toward curing some brain diseases.

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