June 1, 2016 (Vol. 36, No. 11)

Florida Atlantic University Partners With Scripps, Max Planck to Establish Research Colony

Herbert Weissbach, Ph.D., still remembers being the first researcher at the John D. MacArthur Campus of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Jupiter, FL, after moving from the main campus in Boca Raton, FL, in 2010. With no colleagues joining him for another 3½ years afterward and few students back then, Dr. Weissbach jokingly called the place “Planet Jupiter.”

Today, FAU stands at the center of an emerging hub where faculty members and students carry out research within the university and through collaborations with two top-tier institutes also in Jupiter, The Scripps Research Institute (Scripps Florida) and Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience.

Both institutions have established permanent facilities on the MacArthur campus. Scripps Florida moved into its 350,000-square-foot home in 2009 from a smaller temporary campus space later filled by Max Planck, until it moved in 2012 into its own 100,000-square-foot facility. The two are among a half-dozen research institutes that received more than $1 billion in combined state and local economic incentives tied to job-creation goals. Thus far, the goals are only partially fulfilled.

Last year, Scripps Florida and Max Planck joined FAU in committing to create “one of a kind” education programs to attract top students to the MacArthur campus. Faculty from both research institutes and FAU began instructing students in the University’s Integrative Biology and Neuroscience Ph.D. program, co-run with Max Planck Florida. Students started pursuing research in neuronal circuitry, learning and memory, neurodegeneration, drug discovery, stress neurobiology, neurogenetics, and/or neurodevelopment.

Max Planck and FAU have also joined the University of Bonn and the Center for Advanced European Studies and Research to launch another doctoral program, the International Max Planck Research School for Brain and Behavior.

Last October, FAU and Max Planck launched a program designed to recruit early-career scientists to research brain function, focusing on topics such as the neural basis of sensory processing, motor control, and learning and memory. The program exposes recruits to career development opportunities typically available to more seasoned faculty—including tenure-track appointments at FAU. Recruits also have the chance to work at the MacArthur campus.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) are participants in the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Brain and Behavior, a program that aims to recruit outstanding doctoral students and immerse them in a stimulating research environment. In August 2016, the program will welcome its first 15 students, who were selected from over 200 applicants. One of the coveted spots was secured by Monica Risley, an FAU student.

From Nothing to “Spectacular”

“When I drive up here, I see the Scripps building, the Max Planck building, all the seminars going on, the Ph.D. program, university and students carrying out joint studies with the research institutes,” says Dr. Weissbach, distinguished research professor at FAU’s Center for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (CMBB). “It’s just a whole different world. I remember when there was nothing. Now, I think, it’s spectacular.”

A former vice president of research at Roche, Dr. Weissbach was among researchers who co-founded the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in 1967. Three decades later, after mandatory retirement from Roche, he accepted a positon at the University of Miami, then realized it was a two-hour drive from his winter home in Boynton Beach. Seeking a school closer to home, Dr. Weissbach found FAU from a highway exit sign. He connected with the dean of the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, John Wiesenfeld, Ph.D., who hired Dr. Weissbach to launch an effort that grew into the CMBB.

Dr. Weissbach ultimately became the CMBB’s founding director and served in that capacity until last year. He recalls that the CMBB initally had three goals:

  1. Bring research programs in modern biology here to FAU.
  2. Set up training programs.
  3. Become a bridge between the university and the biopharma biotechnology industry that would, it was hoped, one day flourish in the area. (When the CMBB was launched, Dr. Weisbach points out, the area had “no biotechnology and just a few biopharma companies—and no workforce development.”)

The CMBB eventually accepted another goal: draw biotech companies to the region. A few are housed at the CMBB’s Jupiter labs, including Opko Health, a Miami-based drugs and diagnostics company, and Sancilio, a drug developer based 12 miles south of Jupiter in Riviera Beach, FL. A third company is due to join them soon.

Those companies can use the CMBB’s core lab and instruments. A shared facilities agreement covers more than $20 million of equipment which the CMBB makes available to both academic and private-sector users. In addition to basic equipment, the CMBB offers mass spectrometers, peptide synthesizers, PCR thermal cyclers, plate readers, an Agilent Bioanalyzer 2100, high-speed and high-capacity centrifuges, HPLC systems, tissue-culture equipment, and a cold room.

“One of the attractions in coming back was the plan to develop the Jupiter campus, and to develop a much more interactive research relationship between FAU, Scripps Florida, and Max Planck,” Gregg B. Fields, Ph.D., who succeeded Dr. Weissbach as CMBB director, tells GEN. Dr. Fields also chairs the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the position he held from 2000 to 2008.

Taking the Initiative

Building partnerships between FAU, companies, and research institutes is a key goal of the Jupiter Life Science Initiative, a joint effort of the Schmidt College of Science and FAU’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College. FAU launched the Initiative in 2013 when it began expanding its Jupiter campus into a life sciences hub. The university moved 7 researchers and more than 40 employees and graduate assistants north from Boca Raton.

This year, the state of Florida showed its support for the Initiative by awarding FAU $4.5 million—$3 million for a planning study toward a new 72,000-square foot science building, and $1.5 million in recurring funding toward recruiting more science faculty.

“One of the really terrific aspects of this community is the shared research facilities,” declares Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D., founding executive director of the FAU Brain Institute. “There are educational programs and a substantial research footprint.”

“It’s unique in that you have two nonprofit research institutes,” adds Dr. Blakely, who joined the University in May and holds a primary appointment in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. “You have an honors population of talented undergraduates. And now you see FAU mobilizing to more deeply capture the opportunity for collaborations, for building additional infrastructure.”

The potential for growing FAU’s efforts attracted Dr. Blakely, who arrived from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. There, he held positions that included director of the Vanderbilt/National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research, and director of the Vanderbilt/NIMH Postdoctoral Training Program in Functional Neurogenomics.

Dr. Blakely will draw upon his expertise in synaptic molecular biology, neurotransmitter transporters, and human genetics to unite FAU’s existing neuroscience centers and programs while adding new faculty and boosting research support.

“We want to recruit scientists who fit well within the Jupiter environment and who can tap into collaborative opportunities across the campus with Scripps and Max Planck,” he tells GEN. “They will more than likely have a principal focus on vertebrate models of neurobiological disorders such as autism, ADHD, various mental illnesses, and neurological disorders.”

While the majority of students are from Florida, notes Dr. Fields, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry also attracts students from elsewhere: “You have undergraduates who went someplace where it’s always kind of cold, and they think about, ‘Where am I going to go to graduate school? Maybe I’ll go someplace warm.’ That is something that can attract students.”

Once in Jupiter, Dr. Weissbach says, they will discover a hub for biopharma research whose students and stakeholders are committed to growing over time in numbers and especially quality. “This unknown, invisible place close to the ocean is like a gem in terms of neuroscience and biotechnology potential,” asserts Dr. Weissbach. “I don’t think there are many other places like it.” 

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