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Bond Life Sciences Center: A 20-year journey of scientific triumphs

Bond LSC walkway.jpg
From the fifth floor of the Bond LSC, one can look down and see the bridges that connect the facility and foster daily interactions and collaboration. |Photo by Beni Adelstein, Bond LSC

By Beni Adelstein 

When Julia Rodriguez walked into Bond Life Sciences Center in 2004, she and dozens of others were part of a new campus experiment.

As an administrative staff member for the newly minted center, she had a big task ahead of her, but, as Bond LSC approaches its 20th anniversary, she thinks the trajectory and results largely accomplished their aims.

Julia Rodriguez smiles at the camera.
Julia Rodriguez worked as a grant writer at Bond LSC for nearly 20 years. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

“When we started, Bond LSC was a brand-new concept on campus, and the administrative burdens at first were crazy,” Rodriguez recalled.

Bond LSC emerged as a center in pursuit of basic science and collaboration. Its narrative entwines the aspirations and discoveries of its researchers, the evolution of its scientific focus and the crucial growth of its research portfolio.

Rodriguez’s role was to help Bond LSC investigators secure grants, ensuring researchers could primarily focus on their science. She met collaborators, colleagues and policy directors from both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to find out the way they did things and figure out what needed to be done to get an award.

“It’s odd to work in a job where a fail rate of 90% is actually a good thing because the federal funding rates are so low,” explained Rodriguez, shedding light on the harsh realities of funding in scientific research.

But landing more than 10% of submitted grants was a triumph and an integral part of how a center collaborates its way to success and nurtures scientists from divisions across campus. Bond LSC investigators actually have a success rate of about 30%.

Donald Burke, a principal investigator who studies the RNA origins of life and ways to deliver cancer treatment, joined Bond LSC just one year after it opened. The professor works in the departments of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology and Biochemistry with MU’s School of Medicine. He learned about the role collaboration plays in the center.

Donald Burke smiles at the camera
Donald Burke started at Bond LSC a year after it opened. The scientist studies the RNA origins of life and how to use small molecules to better deliver cancer treatment. | photo by Mariah Cox, Bond LSC

“People who want to be successful on their own, off in the corner, have a harder time doing so in modern science because the expectation is that each new study you bring to bear will have multiple facets to it,” Burke said. “I did not do much collaboration before I moved here — that was not how I was trained as a scientist — but I learned how to work as a team.”

The administrative side had to learn a similar lesson.

“It was incredibly specific how you calculated salaries, gave shared credit and how you filled out forms,” Rodriguez said. “Different departments would argue over the correct way to apply for something. That’s why we needed collaborative administration and collaborative facilitation.”

Bond LSC has grown its research expenditures since then. Rodriguez has seen the center increase grant proposals to make gains in awards, especially in the five years since the University of Missouri set a goal to double research funding. Grant obligations to Bond LSC scientists increased from $11.9 million in 2018 to more than $41 million in 2023.

“It’s part of keeping the machine going,” said Walter Gassmann, Bond LSC’s director. “To the public, it might look like scientists run after money, but our job is to conduct experiments to test ideas and reach the next level of insight. Bond LSC’s focus is excellent science so, in the end, we need to compete for a broad portfolio of external funding.”

That funding comes from a variety of sources, including NIH, NSF, private donors and other grants. While Bond LSC has had a wide array of success with funding agencies, increased success with NIH funding emerged in recent years as new biomedical scientists joined the center.

Henry Wan knows that firsthand. He joined Bond LSC five years ago to grow his lab. Wan’s lab alone has garnered around $32 million and three NIH R01 grants since then.

Henry Wan smiles at the camera.
Henry Wan joined Bond LSC fiver years ago to further his study of vaccines, influenza and other viruses. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

Wan studies how viruses like Covid-19 and flu spread, specifically looking at how they infect across human and animal boundaries. His goal is to create better vaccines. A vaccine helps the body defend against a disease by preparing it. Think of it like a mugshot for the body’s immune system to recognize what it’s up against and be prepared.

“We have so many conferences, meetings and seminars here that I really enjoy,” Wan said. “The center has been very supportive, and we see the beauty of the multi-interdisciplinary research in Bond LSC. The center truly makes it easy for collaboration between scientists and different branches of science.”

Some of that teamwork involves big data and artificial intelligence (AI). Wan initially saw a degree of separation between the student programmers and biologists in his lab but now they seamlessly blend.

“The computer science students used to just wait around for me to fit them in; programming they can understand, no problem, but biology is hard, Now I don’t even have to go to the meetings. They talk amongst themselves.”

This teamwork can be seen even before a project gets off the ground. Rodriguez said there is an emphasis on identifying larger groups to apply for more substantial collaborative program and center grants. Sometimes that means being flexible.

Rodriguez said now the attitude in the center is, “Oh, there’s more than one way to do something.” She said seeing collaboration expand into the administrative realm across campus has felt like one of the biggest shifts.

“Suppose department chair A and department chair B want something done in a certain way. Previously they might have been more focused on their own students and research.” she explained. “However, now that getting grant funds benefits everyone, they are more likely to work in tandem with the other department.”

“Collaborative research requires collaborative administration.”

That teamwork translates into passion. Rodriguez recalled when a scientist she was working with on a grant rushed into her office to tell her that he had gotten the award they’d so diligently applied for.

“He came in frantic, saying he needed to talk to me so he could call his wife, and I was a little concerned, but he just wanted me to be the first person he told,” she said. “I have seen incredible dedication and passion for seeing that the science gets done. Watching these projects blossom has been truly rewarding.”

Gassmann agrees. As an inaugural principal investigator in 2004 — long before he became center director — he sees this teamwork through and through.

“It’s amazing seeing how, even though we have different areas of science, all of it connects to form a bigger picture,” Gassmann said.

This spirit fosters an environment where other silos are broken down even beyond faculty in favor of collective success.

Rodriguez and colleague Steve Friedman worked with student researchers in 2022 and 2023 to win NIH F30 predoctoral fellowships, a first for MU. Cynthia Tang — a joint M.D.- Ph.D. graduate student in the Wan lab — focused her application on how Covid-19 spreads and how to track it in rural areas.

“My initial proposal was actually rejected,” Tang said. “I had to take on the challenge of putting together a completely new study design in just under two months.”

Despite the initial setback, Tang prevailed with their help and was able to secure that funding to support her research.

Another example of this teamwork includes Burke’s collaboration with Marc Johnson, another principal investigator studying molecular microbiology and immunology. Johnson happens to be his office neighbor.

“I love having people that you can just go next door or even just shout across the hallway,” Burke said.

“We’re like two vines growing synergistically alongside each other,” Johnson remarked. “Even though we have totally different backgrounds, we’ve gotten the chance to collaborate on publications and mentor students.”

So why does all of this matter? Why is funding for research so important?

“I’m a big fan of basic research because you might not always see the immediate impact, but 20 years later there may suddenly be an application that couldn’t have happened without it,” Gassmann said. “Think about all the things that have made life more pleasant. It’s all based on science and a better understanding of the natural world that keeps us safer and healthier.”

Two people smile while talking in front of a wall of plants.
Lead grant writer Julia Rodriguez and director Walter Gassmann share a conversation on Rodriguez’s last day working for Bond LSC. | Photo by Beni Adelstein, Bond LSC.

Gassmann said Bond LSC’s scientific triumphs are both a testament to its past and a promise of a brighter future for scientific innovation.

But Rodriguez said someone else will carry the grant writing torch for that. After 20 years, Julia Rodriguez retired on January 8th this year.

“It’s an emotional time. When I started here, we felt timid as we tested the waters of this new type of environment and now we feel like family,” she said. “There are good people all over campus but, boy, I have loved watching the center mold together and I love these scientists.”