The director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a key institution for biomedical research, visits Kenyon on Thursday, Sept. 29, to share insight into opportunities and challenges with biomedical research funding in the U.S.
As the head of the NIGMS, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Jon Lorsch oversees a $2.5 billion budget that supports research to increase understanding of biological processes and to develop advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. His 7:30 p.m. speech in Higley Hall Auditorium is titled “Developing a More Productive, Efficient and Sustainable Biomedical Research Enterprise.”
Prior to his 2013 appointment to NIGMS, Lorsch worked as a professor in the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. He earned his doctorate from Harvard University and his bachelor’s from Swarthmore College, where he studied alongside President Sean Decatur, also a chemist and Swarthmore graduate.
“This is a great opportunity to hear more about federal policy and support for science from the director of one of the most important funding sources of biomedical research and education,” said Decatur, who is co-hosting Lorsch’s visit with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kerry Rouhier. “And, Jon is an old friend and classmate from college — we made it through p-chem, senior seminars and honors exams together. With adequate bribery, he may be willing to share information about my geeky undergraduate life.”
“Jon Lorsch is a first-rate biochemist; those who can’t get enough of protein function and mechanisms should also come to his afternoon talk,” Decatur added. Lorsch’s talk, titled “The Molecular Mechanics of Start Codon Recognition by the Eukaryotic Translational Machinery,” will be held Thursday, Sept. 29, at 4:10 p.m., also in Higley Hall Auditorium.
Prior to his presentation, Lorsch answered questions about his work at the NIGMS and offered advice for Kenyon student scientists.
What motivates you in your role as director of the NIGMS?
I have the chance to improve how the biomedical research enterprise works. I am particularly committed to helping launch and sustain the careers of young scientists, because without them, we won’t have medical breakthroughs in the future.
What are some challenges facing biomedical funding in the U.S. today, and how is NIGMS addressing them?
Our job at NIGMS is to make sure that we get the best scientific returns on the taxpayers’ investments in fundamental biomedical research. As you would do if you were investing in the stock market or in startup companies, we are focusing on building a broad and diverse portfolio of scientific research because we cannot predict where the next big breakthroughs will come from.
We are also working to modernize how we educate and train the next generation of biomedical scientists, something that I believe is several decades overdue.
How has your liberal arts experience influenced your career as a leader in biomedical research and development?
My liberal arts education taught me to think critically and to question assumptions, particularly my own. It also infused in me a feeling of responsibility to try to make a positive impact on society. And, of course, it introduced me to many brilliant and creative people, such as Kenyon President Sean Decatur, whom I met on my first day of classes at Swarthmore and with whom I worked closely as a fellow chemistry major throughout my time there.
What advice would you give to Kenyon students seeking a research career in the biomedical sciences?
First, and probably most importantly, seek out good mentors. As a graduate student, your mentors are as important as the scientific questions on which you work. Also, keep an open mind about the research areas that interest you. I have seen too many students put themselves into pigeonholes in ways that limited what they could eventually do — “I am only interested in this particular field,” or, “I want to go to graduate school in order to learn a certain technique.” The traditional boundaries in biomedical research — and in science in general — are blurring and you would do well to draw from multiple disciplines and techniques in your research.
Push yourself to think beyond the hot topics of today and instead move toward uncharted territory. Develop your quantitative and computational skills. You don’t have to minor in math or computer science, but being able to analyze and manipulate complex data sets has become essential for advancing biomedical research. Finally, remember that there are many people working hard to make sure that you are able to follow a career as a biomedical researcher. This is a top priority of members of Congress, staff at the NIH and other federal agencies, the scientific professional societies, and faculty and administrators at colleges and universities across the country. The future as a biomedical researcher is very bright.