University establishes new Fralin Life Science Institute

Tracey Talley Schroeder (left) and Dennis Dean

Tracey Talley Schroeder (left) and Dennis Dean

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 25, 2008 – The Fralin Biotechnology Center and the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences (IBPHS) have been administratively merged to form the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech (Fralin). Dennis Dean, the Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology, will direct the new institute.

The Fralin Biotechnology Center was established in 1995 to promote research, education, and outreach related to the life sciences at Virginia Tech and throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences was created in 2003 to provide strategic support to enhance biomedical research at Virginia Tech. Dean has held the leadership role in both institutes, having been director of the Fralin Center since 2002 and the interim director of the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences since 2006. A Virginia Tech faculty member since 1985, he is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

According to Dean, “Given the similar missions of the Fralin Biotechnology Center and the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences, we decided that a single entity could be managed more effectively and efficiently. Towards that end, we have been fortunate to bring Tracey Talley Schroeder on board as our associate director for administration and finance.”

Schroeder has participated in the start-up and growth of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute , and the Institute for Policy and Governance, where she coordinated institute financial and administrative activity, including researching grant opportunities and working with faculty members to develop proposals for funding from federal, state, local agencies, and foundations; assisting with the construction of new facilities; and managing all personnel processes. “Her experience during the early stages of two large, highly successful institutes, [the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute] and [the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute], and during the merger of three organizations which became the [Institute for Policy and Governance], will be a valuable resource for the successful implementation of this merger and growth of the Fralin Life Science Institute,” said Dean.

“We will be very careful to preserve the original mission of the Fralin Biotechnology Center,” he said. “For example, our strong commitment to public service in the area of biotechnology and undergraduate education – with particular emphasis on research opportunities for undergraduate students – will remain intact. The merger with [the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences] will also permit us to use the Fralin Institute as a broad investment vehicle for promoting interdisciplinary research in life science – with a special focus on biomedical sciences,” Dean said.

“Our specific mission will involve partnering with the university’s colleges and departments as a way to augment faculty member and graduate student recruitment and to promote team science. We expect equipment infrastructure investments to serve as interdisciplinary research incubators that are closely tied to faculty recruitment and graduate student training. We also plan to promote interdisciplinary research through recognition of established faculty that are already engaged in team science and will accomplish this by implementation of a Fralin Institute Senior Fellow program.”

One of the main agendas for this year is to accomplish a capstone hiring of one or two more faculty in the vector-borne disease research group, Dean said. “We already have a cache of outstanding faculty in vector-borne disease research who have been extraordinarily successful. Now is the time to push to the highest level possible,” he said. “These hires will end this phase of aggressive institute investment and we will then focus our primary faculty recruitment efforts in other areas, such as researchers that study metabolic syndromes, for which Virginia Tech also already has an emerging strength. Of course, we also recognize and will continue to support our established strengths in molecular plant sciences and infectious diseases.”

According to Dean, “Aggressive investment in targeted areas will have the biggest impact. Last year, [the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences] partnered with the College of Veterinary Medicine and leveraged Commonwealth Research Initiative funds to help bring three outstanding researchers to Blacksburg and to retain one of our star scientists within the life sciences.”

Investment in graduate student recruitment within the life sciences will remain a high priority. “We will help bring students to campus and help support some of the most competitive students through Fralin Institute Graduate Stipends,” Dean said.

Fralin’s commitment to undergraduate research will continue by matching students with appropriate faculty mentors and rewarding undergraduate performance by investing in the labs that host such undergraduate students.

Dean said that the Fralin Institute has the same philosophy for promoting interdisciplinary research that has worked so well for the Institute for Critical Technology and Science (ICTAS). “Roop (Mahajan, director of ICTAS) and I already work together on a daily basis as we are responsible for implementation of the Virginia Tech Carilion Medical Research Institute. We share the same vision for broadly promoting interdisciplinary research throughout the university. I also expect to work cooperatively with the Institute of Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) and with Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI). For example, VBI and Fralin will jointly invest in faculty members that need to use expensive equipment to generate new data for preparation of new research proposals,” Dean said.

Members of the Fralin Life Science Institute board of directors are the Vice President for Research Bob Walters and five deans, Richard Benson, College of Engineering; Sharron Quisenberry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Lay Nam Chang, College of Science; J. Michael Kelly, College of Natural Resources; and Gerhardt Schurig, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dean received his bachelor’s degree from Wabash College and a Ph.D. from Purdue University. He was a National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin and a research scientist at the Kettering Laboratory before joining the Virginia Tech faculty. An internationally known researcher in the field of nitrogen fixation, his 144 peer-reviewed manuscripts, including such journals as Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, have been cited more than 5,000 times. Dean’s research has been consistently funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, and National Science Foundation. Current professional service includes serving on the editorial boards for the Journal of Bacteriology and Journal of Biological Chemistry. In addition, he has mentored a dozen graduate students and 40 undergraduates, and has been academic advisor to more than 120 undergraduates.