As a scientist, Andrew Murray, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, studies cell division and evolution. As director of the Bauer Center for Genomics Research, Murray has assembled a group of young scientists seeking the general principles of biological design in a collective effort with mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists. That means Murray may find himself on familiar ground when he begins his new duties as chair of the MCB department on July 1. Over the next three years, the department will add new faculty, continue to evolve in several key areas, and embrace a growing number of interdisciplinary and multicampus initiatives.
“This is a great department with a storied history,” Murray said. “It has fabulous core values. It has a preference for rigorous, uncompromising science.” For Murray, the uneven staircase leading up to his third-floor lab space in the Biological Laboratories (Biolabs) building says it all. Gently worn by generations of some of the world’s top scientists, the black marble steps under the soles of Murray’s red canvas high-top sneakers provide firm footing in both the department’s distinguished past and promising future.
In many ways, there may not be a better time to be in biology at Harvard. University President Lawrence Summers has repeatedly expressed a strong commitment to the life sciences. “There is probably nothing else that will be as significant in intellectual life for as long as what is going on in the life sciences,” said Summers at the recent Harvard Stem Cell Institute inaugural symposium. “And that makes it essential that a university like Harvard be centrally focused on these questions in the most creative and the most imaginative ways that it can be.”
Toward that end, Murray will represent both the MCB department and Bauer center on the Life Sciences Executive Council, a committee charged with leading the life sciences development at Harvard into new phases of growth and improvement.
Several new initiatives involving MCB are well underway. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute was launched in April. The same month, a diverse cross-section of researchers held a day-long symposium on microbes in support of a proposed initiative to establish a new interdepartmental program in microbiology.
In July, Harvard’s Center for Brain Science will be energized by the arrival of its first recruits, Joshua Sanes (who will serve as its director) and Jeff Lichtman, who will both be MCB professors. The center builds upon existing multidisciplinary strength in neuroscience and also will recruit several more faculty, some of whose appointments will be in MCB.
Murray said he is “in active discussions about how to build community bridges” for teaching, research, and cooperative faculty recruitment efforts among leaders of related recent systems biology initiatives, including MCB’s Bauer center; the new systems biology department at Harvard Medical School; and the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute, a research collaboration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and affiliated hospitals, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
Even as boundaries among departments, disciplines, and campuses become transparent, Murray wants to shore up the sense of community and connectedness within MCB. “One of my goals is to build collegiality at every level of the department—particularly between levels and between us and other departments—and to build academic strength so we will have the ‘pick of the litter’ when it comes to recruiting students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty, which define the success of a department,” he said.
Murray is mulling strategies to build community, such as encouraging student–faculty journal clubs and town meetings for students, postdocs, and faculty to chat about the future of the department. “The challenge is to figure out something we can do as a department to draw together,” he said. “One of the real questions for everyone is, Can we do more to function as a community?”
The MCB department now occupies most of two buildings in Cambridge, with additional planned lab space in a third building not yet constructed. The community comprises 28 faculty, 84 graduate students, and 114 postdoctoral fellows supported by about 200 staff members. In addition to planned MCB faculty positions in systems neuroscience, the department has several open faculty positions to fill.
“It is a challenging time in biology and the history of biology at Harvard, in the sense that biology is changing,” Murray said. “For those empty slots, the question is, How do we build a department into as strong, vibrant, collegial, and exciting a place as it can possibly be?”
What with running his own lab, directing the Bauer center, and chairing the MCB department, Murray’s schedule would seem to be even busier than that of the typically overloaded scientist. How is he going to manage all the responsibilities? “That’s the question my wife posed,” said Murray, who also has 2 children, ages 2 and 5. “The short answer is: work my tail off. I’ll try to do things as efficiently as I can and to not travel.”
This year, Murray has spent a sabbatical at Rockefeller University in New York learning to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. After preaching about how theorists in physics and other fields must at least dabble in some experimental biology to get a feel for the field, he decided he needed to learn how to run computer simulations in theoretical evolution. He returns to MCB full time on August 2.