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Med school merger gets high marks

As AOL-Time Warner has proven, mergers can often be torturous affairs.

But the School of Medicine's new department of molecular genetics and microbiology--officially created in June 2002 from a merger of the departments of genetics and microbiology--has apparently bucked that trend. Core faculty and administrators are giving the nascent department rave reviews.

"It's gone exceedingly well," said Joseph Nevins, chair and James B. Duke professor of molecular genetics and microbiology. "The two sets of faculty have merged together in a very cooperative way."

To focus research efforts following the merger, four centers were created within the department--experimental genetics, microbial pathogenesis, RNA biology and virology--to complement the Center for Genome Technology, one of the five main components of the University-wide Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. The IGSP center is housed within molecular genetics and microbiology and directed by Nevins.

"Merged departments often become fractured, but [this merger] has to be one of the smoothest transitions I've ever seen," said Dr. Joseph Heitman, a professor in the department and director of the center for microbial pathogenesis. "Organizing the faculty around these centers... encourages interaction and keeps the department from going stale."

In terms of faculty hires and funding, Nevins aims to promote research in all four centers' disciplines, all of which bridge genetics and microbiology.

Two faculty members have already been added since the merger, with further growth planned for the now 17-member department. Nevins expects seven or eight more hires within three years.

"They've done an excellent job recruiting," said Jo Wright, vice dean of basic sciences for the medical school. "I think it's gone very well. They have a lot of new junior faculty that are just dynamite."

The two departments ran a joint graduate program and often collaborated on research before the merger, and the new structuring aims at furthering those efforts. "There was a lot of overlap between the departments, so it was very natural to merge them," said Bryan Cullen, a professor in the department and director of the center for virology. "I think it's an extremely good thing."

Nevins said he also plans to hire faculty and strengthen specific research areas to stimulate collaboration with IGSP. The department may already have an edge besides housing one of IGSP's five main centers--the Institute's new director, Huntington Willard, will serve as a faculty member in molecular genetics and microbiology.

"Faculty recruitments that we have planned match very closely with IGSP," Nevins said. "It's a very close relationship.... As time goes on, that's going to broaden out and involve a much broader group [of departments]."

Although a great deal of attention today is being placed on biodefense, Nevins does not want to structure a program specifically around it. Instead, he favors broader scientific research linking genetics and the behavior of infectious disease-an area well within the ken of IGSP.

"The future we see is applying genetics and genomic approaches to infectious disease," Nevins said. "If you study microbial pathogenesis using the tools of genetics, you begin to find the genes that say one organism is more potent as a pathogen than another.... This is related to finding genes that say an individual is more susceptible to cancer or heart disease."

Along with future innovation along genomic routes, Heitman noted the importance of dealing intelligently with infectious disease, altogether the greatest taker of human life. "In this current day, there's maybe no other more important area than microbiology," he said.


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