March 27, 1998

Limbird set to lead research mission

Limbird set to lead research mission

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Lee Limbird, Ph.D., VUMC's new associate vice chancellor for Research. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

It is estimated that the National Institutes of Health will double its funding to U.S. research institutions over the next decade.

Helping VUMC secure its share of that expanding pie is one of the many challenges facing Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., in her new role as associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs for Research. Others include allocating resources, identifying interdisciplinary opportunities, communicating scientific advances to the lay public and fomenting technology transfer.

Basically, Limbird's task is to foster VUMC's research mission in all its manifestations ‹ both inside and outside the walls of Vanderbilt.

It's a job ‹ in its entirety ‹ that never existed before, but it's one that's crucial if VUMC is to achieve the stated goal of becoming one of the top 10 academic centers in the United States.

"My goal is to meet the needs of the institution and the investigators," Limbird said. "I want research to continue to be investigator-driven. I'm not taking this job so that I direct research, but so that I can help facilitate research by creating an infrastructure that expedites discovery."

Research is one of the cornerstones of VUMC's mission, along with education and patient care. Like those endeavors, there is intense competition not just locally, but nationally for the resources necessary to succeed and grow. Increasing the odds of attracting those resources, in the form of sponsored and non-sponsored research funding, is becoming more and more vital.

The idea for creating the position that Limbird now holds developed during the strategic planning process for the medical center's Academic Enterprise, which was begun three years ago. During that process, it became clear that scientific research at VUMC would be greatly enhanced if there was someone whose job description was to make sure that it happened, Limbird said.

"The strategic planning process gave us the opportunity to think about this role quite a bit. I think Vanderbilt has some strengths that no other institution has, such as the level of collegiality displayed here.

"Vanderbilt will grow as an institution to take advantage of the new resources from the NIH. When we grow, it's important that we grow as a faculty who understands and appreciates the many ways each of us contributes, because we can't all do the same things. Like a family, some of us will spend more time with the clinical mission, others with education, and others with research.

"The fact is we need these different roles here. I think it's important to have someone who can put this all together so that the faculty, when it grows, doesn't polarize and we can actually have a better appreciation for the contributions each of us makes," Limbird said.

In her new role as Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs for Research, Limbird stresses that she will be coordinating, not directing, Vanderbilt's research mission.

"On an individual investigator basis, each scientist knows how to develop his or her own research program. But as the pace of science accelerates and what we can learn and the tools that we have available to ask questions increases, you see a greater need to collaborate and do pilot experiments that cross disciplinary lines.

"This requires that you know what other people are doing and that you have someone who can identify collaborators and determine feasibility and whether the resources exist," Limbird said.

"If the resources exist, this position provides a mechanism for making sure they go to the most talented investigators who have the hottest ideas."

And these hot ideas are the ones that may turn into tomorrow's therapies. These ideas also have the potential to augment revenues flowing into the medical center through increased patents, royalty funds and technology transfer ‹ translating scientific discoveries into new treatments as quickly as possible. Currently, Vanderbilt ranks 62nd in the country in royalty income.

Improving this number will take a coordinated effort, Limbird said.

"Another role of this position is to go outside the institution as someone whose job it is to see that we have the best possible linkages with biotechnical companies and others to foster technology transfer and new ideas.

"We will be working with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and other chambers of commerce in the region to encourage complementary industries to locate here," Limbird said.

Washington, D.C., will also be on Limbird's agenda, where she will play a part in working to anticipate where federal resources might become available so that VUMC can remain competitive.

"We are going to do whatever we can to help create the best science that we can contribute to society. And not just basic research, but clinical research as well," Limbird said.

"As investigators, we seek new knowledge simply because it's not known. One of the primary missions of an academic medical center, however, is to orchestrate these research endeavors in such a way that our focus on discovering new knowledge will someday serve the utilitarian objective of improving human health."

At the beginning of April, Limbird will step down as chair of the Department of Pharmacology, a position she's held since 1990. Under her guidance, the department grew in stature as a leader in research, consistently ranking at or near the top among nationally recognized Pharmacology departments in NIH funding.

A committee, led by Dr. Steven C. Hebert, professor of Medicine and Pharmacology, has been named to search for Limbird's successor. She will continue to serve as interim chair until a new person is appointed.

Through all the changes, challenges and new responsibilities that go along with taking on the mantle of Vanderbilt's first Associate Vice Chancellor for research, Limbird said she won't forget her roots, which can be found in the laboratory.

"If, in this new role, I am to truly serve the scientific mission, I think it's easier to do that when I have an urgency for research to run smoothly at Vanderbilt," Limbird said.

"Like the saying goes ‹ you have to dance with the one that brought you."