Institute for Genomic Biology celebrates tenth anniversary


Ryan Fang

Outside of the Institute of Genomic Biology. The institute is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

By Emma Palatnik, Assistant features editor

1206 W. Gregory Drive is home to a state-of-the-art research center where scientists make discoveries on health, technology and the environment.

Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The institute was created as a place where collaborative research thrives.

Two buildings make up the IGB. The larger, three-story building is called the research building. The second building farther north is named the “Gatehouse,” which houses the administrative staff.

The research building is home to group lab spaces, which are separated into two wings: the north wing and the south wing.

“Each of those three floors, each direction north and south, we have an open lab,” Nicholas Vasi, IGB communications director, said. “So there’s six in that building, and one in the concourse level. That’s seven open labs total. These are large collaborative spaces that the research groups or themes at the IGB utilize to do benchwork and research.”

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Gene Robinson, IGB director, said the building was designed to accommodate a structure for multidisciplinary team science.

“There are no labs for individual scientists — all the scientists that are in the IGB work together in teams. The technical name for our teams are thematic research groups, which we abbreviate to themes,” Robinson said.

Research at IGB operates under 10 different themes: “Anti-Cancer Discovery from Pets to People,” “Biocomplexity,” “Biosystems Design,” “Computing Genomes for Reproductive Health,” “Genomic Ecology of Global Change,” “Gene Networks in Neural and Developmental Plasticity,” “Microbiome Metabolic Engineering,” “Mining Microbial Genomes,” “Omics Nanotechnology for Cancer Precision Medicine” and “Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering.”

Donald Ort, head of Genomic Economy of Global Change, said students and faculty have the opportunity to work in tandem with those in other scientific disciplines.

“Being in this environment, we’re doing research that we couldn’t do if we were all isolated in our own sagas,” Ort said. “But just as important, we are training the next generation of scientists in a way that no one of us as faculty members could do, because we don’t have the expertise that is as broad that is represented in this theme.”

William Metcalf, head of Mining Microbial Genomes, said the MMG faculty and students from chemistry, biochemistry, biology and bioengineering work together in the shared lab space.

“We actually have a rule that my students don’t get to sit next to other students in my group. Everybody is mixed in and blended together,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf, a microbiologist, said his students are better chemists than him due to their collaboration with the chemistry section.

“I think we’re training students that are much better equipped to go out into the modern scientific world. They’re exposed, and they’re familiar with lots of different approaches to solve problems,” Metcalf said.

Lisa Ainsworth, member of Genomic Economy of Global Change, said when working in the group lab space, scientists are bumping shoulders with other members all the time, but it allows students to gain greater exposure from other groups’ work rather than on their own.

“You can get ideas from other people, and you can learn new techniques pretty easily. And you get outside opinion on projects which is invaluable,” Ainsworth said.

This type of research is unique to the University, but there are similar institutes around the country. The problem with other research institutions is that they become less productive over time. Some scientists refer to this as “fossilization.”

“The IGB was set up differently. None of the faculty that are in IGB have appointments, full-time appointments to IGB. All of us have a home in some other department in the university,” Metcalf said. “We (themes) all are reviewed on a five-year basis. IGB was set up with a mechanism that ensures we stay vital, that we always are cutting edge.”

Since the beginning of the IGB, some research themes were eliminated because they were found to be unproductive.

There is a process to become part of the IGB. Robinson said the individual must be part of a group that writes a “white paper.” The paper has to address a grand challenge-level question that affects science and society. It needs some aspect of genomic biology to answer the question, and requires a multidisciplinary approach using a blend of engineering, life science and potentially social science.

The “white paper” is sent by Robinson outside of the University to blue-ribbon individuals across the country and internationally for review. If the “white paper” and the team are approved, Robinson “gives a green light” and they move into the IGB.

In addition to research, the IGB has outreach efforts to engage with those outside of the University.

Every summer, the Genomic Economy for Global Change theme holds a camp for middle school girls called “Pollen Power.” The girls come to the IGB and learn about how pollen can be a lens into past climates and ecosystems, and how it’s subject to change in the future.

“It’s a really tremendous opportunity for us to highlight some of the research we do as well as teach the public about biology,” Ainsworth said. “This is only possible because of the tremendous staff at the IGB and the work they are willing to put in and really the importance that they place on outreach and public engagement.”

Ainsworth said they use graduate students as camp counselors, so the girls get to see young women at different stages in their career.

“It makes science more accessible. Junior high is a time that research has shown girls start to lose interest and confidence in their ability to do science and STEM,” Ainsworth said.

Metcalf said he has been collaborating with the same team since before the IGB opened. Now that the team works in the same space, he said their productivity has increased.

“I don’t think that this is an exaggeration, that the pace of our research has probably gone up by three or four fold,” Metcalf said.

To celebrate the building’s 10-year anniversary, the IGB is having a reception at the Sangamo Club in Springfield Wednesday.

“My favorite part is to see teams come together, people from different disciplines, highly motivated and excited about solving big problems, grand challenge-level problems,” Robinson said. “Seeing the groups come together, learn about each other’s expertise, become really a highly functional single entity. A real team in the sense of the word.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the name of the building was the Institute of Genomic Biology. The correct name is the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. An earlier version also incorrectly stated the theme names “Genomic Equality of Global Change,” “Gene Networks in Neuro and Developmental Plasticity” and “Nanotechnology for Cancer Precision Medicine.” The correct names are “Genomic Ecology of Global Change,” “Gene Networks in Neural and Developmental Plasticity” and “Omics Nanotechnology for Cancer Precision Medicine.” The Daily Illini regrets these errors.