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Chancellor sees Vanderbilt’s Basic Sciences as ‘crown jewel’ with great potential

Back to Vestigo Issue 3

Photo of Chancellor Daniel Diermeier outside of Kirkland Hall wearing a suit and tie.
Chancellor Daniel Diermeier outside of Kirkland Hall. Photo by John Russell.

By Lorena Infante Lara

Transformational research does not happen in a vacuum. It requires more than just the talent and grit that engenders innovation, more than just long hours staring at code or through a microscope. It requires institutional support, and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Basic Sciences has that in abundance.

Although Basic Sciences is barely five years old—founded as part of the legal separation of Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center—its departments of Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and Pharmacology have existed within the university for nearly a hundred years.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier recently discussed the role of Basic Sciences with Vestigo.

The university’s ninth chancellor, Diermeier is an internationally renowned political scientist and management scholar. He has published four books and more than 100 research articles, mostly in the fields of political science, economics, and management, but also in other areas ranging from linguistics, sociology, and psychology to computer science, operations research, and applied mathematics. From 2016 to 2020, Diermeier served as the provost of the University of Chicago, and he has held leadership and faculty positions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.


Most basic sciences departments across the country are part of their associated schools of medicine and report to the schools’ deans, but the dean and the school often sit under the larger umbrella of academic medical centers. What can you tell me about the organizational structure we have at Vanderbilt?

We have a unique structure in which Basic Sciences collaborates with the clinical faculty in the medical center but actually reports up to the university provost. In this innovative reporting structure, the dean of Basic Sciences, Larry Marnett, connects with the dean of the School of Medicine, Jeff Balser—as well as with Vanderbilt’s new provost, Cybele Raver.

This structure has been enormously successful for us. Biomedical research is moving at an enormous speed. The more we can connect with other parts of the university, foster relationships, and take full advantage of the work done in other parts of the university, the better. It’s going to be essential for our forward progress.


What makes Basic Sciences at Vanderbilt successful?

One of the things that has struck me the most about Vanderbilt since I arrived last year is just how collaborative this place is—how much it thinks about itself as one community and how much people look out for each other. The culture of collaboration is evident in Basic Sciences as it works with partners from across the university, whether within its own departments or with other areas across campus, such as the College of Arts and Science, the School of Engineering, or even clinicians at VUMC.

Basic Sciences is particularly important because of the fundamental, cross-disciplinary nature of its work, and its departments are among our most distinguished on campus. We’re very proud of that. They add tremendously to the reputation and eminence of the university.


What role do you see for the biomedical sciences on campus and in our society?

The work these researchers are engaged in has a tremendous impact on the world in a variety of positive and tangible ways. We see this, of course, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. So much of the foundational work that is leading to therapeutics happens in basic sciences departments. Some of the fundamental work on vaccines dates all the way back to Dr. Ernest Goodpasture, a Vanderbilt faculty member who revolutionized virology by devising a sterile way to grow viruses in fertilized chicken eggs.

The basic sciences are often foundational to finding cures and treatments, and so, broadly speaking, the biomedical sciences are one of the most exciting areas of research—and have tremendous potential to make a societal impact. They’re also an incredibly important partner for the work that’s going on at the medical center in the clinical departments, so having a strong presence here at Vanderbilt is essential.


What can you and the university do to help raise the profile of Basic Sciences internally and externally?

There are a couple of dimensions to this. The first and most important one for us is the work itself. We need to make sure that this is a place that is a destination for the very best faculty and for the very best graduate students. Our Destination Vanderbilt initiative is an important pillar of that strategy because it allows us—in an environment where many other universities have scaled back their hiring, including in the basic sciences—to actively and aggressively recruit the brightest faculty we can find.

The second dimension is the need to further establish our global reputation. The international awareness of the great work that’s happening at Vanderbilt could be stronger. We don’t want that to be a limiting factor for doctoral students to come here. Vanderbilt might be a perfect fit for some of these researchers, but they may not even have us on their radar. We need to work on Vanderbilt’s story not just in the United States, but also in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, Australia—everywhere.

Having Provost Raver onboard will be a great opportunity for us. She has deep expertise working with the sciences, as well as in designing global strategies for top universities. She brings a valuable perspective that will be very helpful.


Where do you see Vanderbilt’s Basic Sciences going from here?

We have the opportunity and the potential to be the very best in the world. That’s a strong statement, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement. We’re very proud of the work that’s going on in Basic Sciences—it’s one of the crown jewels of Vanderbilt. I’m very optimistic about its direction and couldn’t be more pleased with the work and the breakthroughs that are happening here.