Evolution of a Department
The University of Miami biology department builds bridges among disciplines
Biochemistry, ecology, molecular biology, and genetics. Biology departments across the country are slicing and dicing themselves into bite-sized mini-units. So why is the University of Miami’s Department of Biology building a single, unified community of scientists?
“The most exciting research occurs at the borders of disciplines,” said Kathryn Tosney professor and chair of the biology department. “When minds collide, sparks really fly.”
With an organizational philosophy that promotes collaboration among disciplines, Tosney is at the vanguard of a new movement to reunite biologists. A renowned developmental biologist who was recruited from the University of Michigan, she sees the dissection of departments into sub-disciplines as counterproductive to biological investigation and education.
Tosney is not alone in her thinking. Universities across the country are reorganizing their biology departments. Duke University recently formed a single department out of many and Yale University, though it ended up splitting its department into two groups, was the scene of great debate on the subject.
At the University of Miami, Tosney is working to unite biologists so they can more easily conduct some of science’s most fascinating research. Her strategy begins with building a strong foundation in the traditional fields of ecology, evolutionary biology, and developmental biology, and then bridging these fields with faculty who conduct interdisciplinary research. Appointing researchers who focus on genomics – or the study of genes and their functions – will complete the plan as this field overlaps all of the disciplines.
Two developmental biologists, Athula Wikramanayake from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Akira Chiba from the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign, were recruited because they are senior faculty who are capable of serving as leaders in interdisciplinary biological research.
Wikramanayake’s research bridges the fields of evolution and development. He investigates how complex animals evolved from simple organisms by focusing on an evolutionarily ancient signal transduction pathway – or the pathway by which a signal outside a cell causes a functional change inside a cell – that plays a key role in the evolution of complexity. The pathway, which is known as the Wnt signaling pathway, also is important in many developmental and homeostatic, or equilibrium-maintaining, processes in animals.
“Misregulation of this pathway has been implicated in numerous human diseases and is thought to be the principal cause of human colorectal cancers,” said Wikramanayake, who added that he hopes his work will help him to better understand how the pathway functions during development and disease.
BIOLOGY VISION With newly-hired faculty, the Department of Biology now has strengths in three foundational disciplines: ecology, evolution, and developmental biology. These foundations will be bridged by adding professors who study genomics, evolution and development (evo-devo), ecology and evolution (eco-evo), and ecology and development (eco-devo).
Like Wikramanayake, Chiba’s research is interdisciplinary. He is a developmental neurobiologist who studies how brains develop. He uses Mediterranean fruit flies to examine how individual nerve cells develop and connect with one another within a live embryo. Ultimately, he hopes to understand how intelligence emerges from a network of cells through interactions among molecules.
“I am totally fascinated by what the brain represents, the intelligence and the individuality,” said Chiba. “It self-assembles, which is something no man-made device yet can do.”
In addition to Chiba and Wikramanayake, the Department of Biology appointed two junior developmental biology faculty members this year. Julia Dallman and Isaac Skromne join veteran professor John Lu in using zebrafish as a model genetic organism. Zebrafish are commonly used to study vertebrate development and gene function, and may replace the use of mice and rats in such studies since they are more efficient and inexpensive to use. A new zebrafish facility is being constructed in the Cox Science Center to accommodate this contingent.
“This new leadership in developmental biology, along with the junior faculty and nearly a dozen developmental biologists across all three campuses, creates a vibrant population that is already garnering significant recognition in the international community,” said Tosney.
But developmental biologists aren’t the only scientists that Tosney is recruiting. The department is recruiting ecologists and evolutionary biologists as well as faculty in the fields that bridge the three disciplines. One position is made possible by the generous gift of alumni Jeffrey Aresty ’77 and Patricia (Pickton) Aresty ’76.
“The Aresty Chair in Tropical Ecology will allow us to bring in a renowned tropical ecologist who can serve as a leader in our department,” said Tosney. “It will strengthen our already strong reputation in tropical ecology.”