August 2014 Newsletter Article

Q&A With Stephen M. Lanier, Wayne State University Vice President For Research

(Photo Courtesy Wayne State University)

Stephen M. Lanier was appointed Wayne State University’s vice president for research in June after a nationwide search. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology with high distinction from Tennessee Technological University and his doctoral degree in pharmacology from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He has worked at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital as a fellow, instructor and assistant professor, at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) as a faculty member, and was the Lederle Laboratories/David R. Bethune professor and chair of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. He left his most recent position as MUSC’s associate provost for research and professor of cell and molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics this summer to come to Wayne State.

Question: You’ve lived in Tennessee, Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Louisiana, but this appears to be your first job in the Upper Midwest. What drew you to Detroit and Wayne State University?

Answer: The winter weather! Ha! Just kidding.

I wanted to be involved with a comprehensive research university in an urban environment and was exploring different opportunities along this line.  Although not on my radar screen, I was contacted about the position in Detroit this past winter.

As I read more and more about the city and Wayne State, it was clear to me that there was a very interesting vibe in the city. The car industry was turning around, the city had a new mayor and the potential to come out of bankruptcy and it was attracting a lot of investment and talent. It seemed to me that Wayne State University was right in the middle of everything that was going on and was playing a very important role in the turnaround of the city.

In addition there was a new president for the university with a focus and track record in research and academics that was very interesting. 

There was also a lot of energy around technology development, innovation and entrepreneurship, which was also very appealing since the region has a rich history of innovation and creating.

Although I have not lived in the Midwest, my mother was born and raised in Highland Park, so I came here as a child many times.  I had these snapshot memories of the city in my mind and I still remember my father taking me to see the Tigers when Al Kaline was playing!

So I came for a visit and was very fortunate to make the second round of interviews during which I had the chance to meet President M. Roy Wilson and others on campus.

It just came together very quickly and I am honored to have the opportunity to be here.

Q: You were very successful at helping Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans greatly expand its extramural funding, especially from the NIH.  In addition, while at the Medical University of South Carolina there was significant growth in its research funding with the university receiving NCI designation of its cancer center and a Clinical and Translational Sciences Award. Is expanded research funding one of your primary goals for Wayne State?

A: As is the case at many institutions, research funding at Wayne State University has declined in the past few years with the reduction in research funding at the federal level.

So yes ‒ one of our goals is to certainly turn that around across the board. There are some great research teams at WSU and we need to expand recruiting efforts bring in additional talented faculty. In addition to increasing programmatic funding from NIH and NSF, we need to work hard to further diversify the portfolio and generate funding through other federal agencies, foundations and through strategic corporate partnerships.

Q: Wayne State is home to the NIH’s Perinatology Research Branch. What are your goals for PRB?

A: This is a hugely important entity for Wayne State University, the city of Detroit and the entire state of Michigan. Although I am just getting on the ground here and have not yet had a chance to fully engage with the PRB, it is clear that we need to work to develop programs that align with and complement the mission and goals of the PRB promoting broad synergy. 

Q: What do you think Wayne State does best when it comes to research?

A: There are a number of areas of research strength at WSU including a number of programs focused on maternal child health and health over the life span. Our cancer research programs are very strong. Biomedical imaging and biomedical engineering have clear strengths. The Department of Chemistry has a particularly strong reputation and the College of Engineering has a number of strengths in systems engineering and automotive research. There are also a number of interesting programs developing in the area of water and ecosystem management, as well as the impact of the environment on health. There are many, many more additional strengths across all of the schools and colleges on campus.

Q: What are the primary research areas where you’d like to see Wayne State play a more expanded role?

A: Community partnerships in the city of Detroit, drug discovery, health equity, information sciences, intercollegiate initiatives focused on health issues impacting the region, systems biology, systems engineering, transportation, water and ecosystem management and workforce development.

Q: Wayne State, along with other universities in Michigan’s University Research Corridor, is looking for ways to encourage more entrepreneurship among faculty and students, and I know you have extensive experience in technology transfer. How do you think Wayne State can encourage a faster pace of tech transfer?

A: This takes the right mix of people, continuing education, increased awareness of the importance of such activities and alignment of various related efforts in this area. Key to any such initiative is the faculty themselves and their talents at generating new knowledge.

Students also can be important creators, innovators and entrepreneurs as can university staff! It is important to nurture that culture of innovation or “how can we do this better” across the campus.

Finally, I know that many enter into the university technology development space with the idea of generating a lot of money. This is not necessarily the case and it does not happen overnight, but rather requires a sustained effort. Another way I like to think about the development of technologies out of the university is that it is actually a social responsibility for all of us to move ideas forward where they can ultimately benefit the broad communities that we serve.

Q: Wayne State has invested in helping Detroit and its residents in many ways. Could you tell us about some specific areas in which Wayne State research is assisting the city regain its vibrancy, and about other research areas you think could help?

A: One very important initiative that can be further expanded is centered on nurturing “The Healthy Community” in its broadest sense. This includes understanding environment and stressors, providing educational resources, developing targeted health research and interventions, and creating broad partnerships across economic development platforms.

Thus, in this broad context there would be an umbrella for engagement of multiple colleges and interdisciplinary partnership at Wayne State University such as in systems engineering, basic and clinical research on targeted diseases, implementation sciences, education, business, policy and law, psychology, arts and sciences, etc.  

Q: What do you think of the way Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan work together as the University Research Corridor?

A: I think framing the partnership encompassed by the University Research Corridor is of huge importance for the region.  I have not yet had a chance to fully get up to speed on the different initiatives, but at first glance I think that there are opportunities for expanded collaborative initiatives across the three universities. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we actually had joint recruitment efforts in targeted research areas?