Interdisciplinary Possibilities Pull Caltech Biologist to U. of Southern California

Courtesy of U. of Southern California

Scott E. Fraser
December 17, 2012


Age: 58

New job: Provost professor of biological sciences and biomedical engineering and director of science initiatives at the University of Southern California

Position he left: Professor of biology and of engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology, where he also founded the Biological Imaging Center in the Beckman Institute and two other centers

Highest degree: Doctorate in biophysics from the Johns Hopkins University

About a year and a half ago, I was at a meeting in Germany, giving a talk on the fruits of one of our interdisciplinary efforts at Caltech: a new microscope configured to help understand how cells are communicating and moving. After I rejoined the audience, the person sitting next to me told me he was on a search committee seeking someone who could foster new science initiatives and asked if I was willing to share my CV.

He hadn't named the institution, but, shortly thereafter, I got a call from the University of Southern California. I ended up meeting with the president and provost.

They said they wanted to transform the faculty in interdisciplinary science and to build upon the strides the previous administration had made in undergraduate education to all of science and engineering, making USC equally attractive, if not more so, for the postdocs and grad students and research faculty.

They asked me to dream big, and we talked about ways to get different disciplines to play nicely together. In those sorts of conversations, if they go well, the candidate ends up recruiting himself.

Another new USC recruit is Steve A. Kay, dean of biological sciences at the University of California at San Diego, who has become dean of USC's college of letters, arts, and sciences. At each of the universities where he has worked, he looked at where his field could go and then did things at the lunatic fringe. I like to pride myself on doing that, too.

At my own lab at Caltech, for example, most years we've had artists working with us, as well as mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.

Most interdisciplinary programs don't achieve what they hope to, because much of the interaction between the players happens when they bump into each other on the rush to get funds. We try to make it so people can really understand the other field and its challenges.

Many of the people who have come to my lab end up changing fields. Part of that is because they're coming to change, and part is they start to play, and they see a way that they can use the tools that they developed in, for example, applied mathematics to become an exceptional microscopist or developmental biologist.

For some people, interdisciplinary might mean: I'm a biologist and I need a computer person, so I hire one. To me, that's not interdisciplinary. Having an enslaved computer scientist doesn't move things forward in the way it could. Instead, if you embed the computer scientist in your group and fully train them in what the issues are and where you're trying to get to, that's how innovations come about.

USC is among only a handful of universities in the country that have the right range of departments and talents to do this. Caltech was an exceptional think tank and an institute where people could be fearless, but it's a small place, without a clinical presence. USC offers the possibility, on a single campus, of putting in place a program that could make it effortless for people to move from engineering to medicine or chemistry or whatever it takes to attack and solve a problem.

I'm bringing about two dozen people from Caltech, and about three or four who will take laboratory leadership positions at USC. We're already talking to a dozen people worldwide about joining in this exciting effort to build a new convergence of fields.

—As told to Paul Basken