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UM president: Scientific research without a specific goal is key to nation's health

Release Date: March 24, 2017

cisler lecture
SOUTHFIELD, Mich. – Why on Earth are they studying that?

It’s a question you often hear about scientific research, often government funded, without a specific goal in mind.

But hang on. According to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, basic research is responsible for many of the scientific advances that make our lives much better.

Schlissel, a biology researcher before becoming a university administrator, stuck to advances in stem cell and genetic research during his talk Thursday night at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. Schlissel delivered the 21st annual Walker L. Cisler Lecture, a major academic lecture offered at Lawrence Tech every spring.

Schlissel presented example after example showing that “discovery science, driven by curiosity, has been responsible for most major scientific advances. Research where nobody is telling the researcher what to study. The results ultimately became profound.”

Schlissel traced the history of the discovery of DNA from early 20th Century experiments to the identification of DNA as the keeper of the genetic code in the 1950s and 1960s, all driven by curiosity – and which have today become multi-billion-dollar industries. 

Schlissel showed a tape of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin mocking government-funded fruit fly research. But Schlissel noted that that research eventually led to a clear understanding of the genetic origin of horrible human bone deformities.

“You can’t predict where science will lead or what a project’s ultimate importance will be,” he said.

Today’s genetic and stem cell research, Schlissel said, may eventually make individually tailored medicines possible, and the repair of genetic defects that cause diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia.

There’s an ethical hold on some of this research, however, because it comes close to genetic “repair” of seemingly healthy people. “I always wanted to play basketball, but I wasn’t talented enough,” Schlissel said. “What if we cloned the Michael Jordan gene and gave it to me, or to my offspring? The scientific community is pausing … to study whether this is appropriate.”

Schlissel also expressed worry that “the research enterprise is under threat,” with deep budget cuts proposed for the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, and 100 percent cuts for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

He quoted Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harold Varmus’ recent op-ed in The New York Times, that “this is not about Republicans versus Democrats. It is about a more fundamental divide, between those who believe in evidence as a basis for life-altering and nation-defining decisions and those who adhere unflinchingly to dogma. It is about a conception of national leadership that connects our economic success and our security to the generation of knowledge, and to the arts and sciences, not just to our military strength.” 

The Walker L. Cisler lecture series was founded at Lawrence Tech with a generous gift from the Holley Foundation.

Well known for his leadership of Detroit Edison from 1954 to 1971, Cisler enjoyed a career that spanned a lifetime of personal, professional, civic, and business accomplishments. As an international ambassador for the American utility industry, and a tireless humanitarian, he strived to improve the quality of life for people everywhere.

Schlissel became the 14th president of UM, and the first physician to take the position, in July 2014. He previously was provost of Brown University, where he was responsible for academic and budgetary functions, as well as libraries and research institutes.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y, Schlissel earned a Bachelor of Arts in biochemical sciences from Princeton University in 1979, and M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in physiological chemistry from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1986. He did his residency in internal medicine at Hopkins Hospital and conducted postdoctoral research as a Bristol-Myers Cancer Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Schlissel joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1991, and earned several awards and fellowships for his research and teaching. He moved to the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California-Berkeley in 1999 as associate professor, advancing to full professor in 2002.


His research has focused on the developmental biology of B lymphocytes, the cell type in the immune system that secretes antibodies. His work has contributed to a detailed understanding of genetic factors involved in the production of antibodies and how mistakes in that process can lead to leukemia and lymphoma. He is the author or co-author of more than 100 scientific papers and trained 21 successful doctoral candidates.

He was UC-Berkeley’s dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters & Science and held the C.H. Li Chair in Biochemistry until his appointment as Brown’s provost in 2011.


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