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  April 23, 2001

Endowed Chairs Have 'Magnet' Effect

Dr. Andrew Arnold was at Harvard when he discovered a gene named cyclin D1. It causes various endocrine system tumors, lymphomas, head and neck cancers, and perhaps up to 50 percent of breast cancers.

Now he holds the Murray Heilig Chair in Molecular Medicine at the UConn Health Center, where he is trying to find the underlying mechanisms that cause this switched-on gene to make cells cancerous.

Arnold would not be conducting his research at UConn were it not for the endowed chair created in 1996 by donors Charles E. and the late Alice Murray Heilig and their daughter, Cheryl A. Heilig.

"The idea of a chair with constant funding was a huge component in my decision to come here in 1997," he recalls. "I now have the freedom to broaden the scope of my efforts into important areas that I would not have considered if our program were still 100 percent dependent on short-term grant funding."

The 'magnet' effect of endowed chairs, drawing top researchers and their graduate assistants, is so important to the University's goal of being among the top 25 national public research institutions that adding endowed chairs is a major focus of Campaign UConn.

The campaign's goal will be announced May 3 when the public phase of fund-raising begins. A quarter of it will be directed toward adding endowed chairs and professorships and for faculty support.

Currently UConn has a total of 47 endowed chairs and 12 endowed professorships, including 24 chairs at the Health Center and one chair and three professorships at the School of Law. The University's goal is to triple the number of endowed chairs here during Campaign UConn.

Private support has increased the number of endowed chairs by 30 in recent years, but that still lags behind the number of endowed faculty positions at other major research universities. Ohio State University recently added 79 new endowed chairs and professorships during a major fund-raising campaign.

"If you look at the top departments in the world, they all have three or four endowed chairs in them. So, it's very important for UConn to offer the same competitive advantage," says Robert R. Birge, who came to UConn in 2000 from Syracuse University to be the first Harold S. Schwenk Sr. Distinguished Chair in Chemistry.

Endowed positions are supported by income generated by the investment of the endowment. Endowed positions help attract eminent scholars who have well established research programs. A chair gives them the flexibility to pursue paths of inquiry beyond the restrictions typical of research grants.

"You can try out new things - very 'high risk' research that you otherwise couldn't get funded," says Birge. "It's that high-risk research that has the high payoffs, and it allows you to try things that you couldn't otherwise try. And that's what really pushes the research forward."

Having an endowed chair establishes a strong base for research in a particular field, says Dr. Lawrence Raisz, program director of the General Clinical Research Center at the Health Center. "The goal is to have security, at least for a cadre, a small group, of the leadership of the field in the institution. If you can give a person the opportunity to not have to scramble for their personal salary through grants or clinical work, they can fully address themselves to the issues they were brought here for."

That research base also attracts graduate students who can bring new insights to the work. "We have some very talented people who bring a vibrant, questioning attitude to the lab," says Arnold. One of these is Trisha Shattuck, a student in the Health Center's combined M.D./Ph.D. program. She earned an undergraduate biology degree from Yale and is now working in Arnold's lab.

"When you're a med student and you don't have much money, it's hard not to think about the costs of the research," she says. "But Dr. Arnold says, 'Don't worry about paying the bills, because that's not your job. Just think about the best ways to approach the scientific problem.'"

The growth in the number of of endowed chairs in recent years at the Health Center demonstrates how chairs can catalyze research programs and enhance teaching. "With those positions available, we have recruited faculty from Harvard, from M.D. Anderson, from Texas Southwest, some of the best people around, who have brought money with them," says President Philip E. Austin. "They're occupying positions that philanthropists have helped make possible. As a result, in each of the last two years, we've enjoyed a 20 percent increase in federal funding, federally supported research." These faculty, he adds, also teach medical, dental, and Ph.D. students at the Health Center.

Raising the visibility of research in a particular field can also raise the national visibility of a university. Chancellor John D. Peterson says his own graduate school alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara, provides a model for this. UCSB, by its own description, was a teaching college 50 years ago. Last fall, two of its faculty won Nobel prizes, bringing the number of science Nobel laureates on campus to four. The Los Angeles Times pointed out in an article last fall that Santa Barbara's success in attracting faculty of Nobel stature has made it a magnet for other researchers and top graduate students. UCSB was ranked 14th among public national research universities in the 2001 U.S. News & World Report survey.

By building its endowment, UConn can achieve the same success, says Anthony T. DiBenedetto, University Professor of chemical engineering emeritus. "I don't see why not," he says. By providing flexible capital to establish a chair for a famous scientist or scholar, that person is then given enough support to build a group and to build up programs. Santa Barbara did that. They took their endowments and they set up priority areas. Last year two of their faculty received Nobel Prizes."

Cindy Weiss

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