By Michael J. Friedlander
Friedlander is Founding Executive Director, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC; Virginia Tech Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology; Senior Dean for Research, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; Virginia Tech Professor of Biological Sciences, of Biomedical Engineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.
The people who work at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are Virginia Tech employees, including the faculty research team leaders, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, and technical and administrative support personnel. Included among the support staff are experts in information technology, human resources, finance, facilities management, laboratory management, communications, and development. It takes the entire team working together to produce the new preventions, diagnostics and treatments for diseases. All those who work at the research institute are passionate about committing major parts of their lives to accomplishing these goals. As is often said, “Science is a lifestyle, not a job!”
At any given time, between 100 and 200 students, including undergraduates, graduate students, and medical students, are also working and studying under the mentorship of faculty at the institute, with many also earning degrees from Virginia Tech. In addition, some high school students carry out research at the institute. Most of the graduate students and medical students, with an increasing number of undergraduates, live in Roanoke, usually renting or occasionally purchase housing in the area.
Of the more than 450 faculty, staff, and students who worked at the institute this past year (of which about 350 were there at any time since many undergraduates may only spend parts of a year or semester on site), a substantial majority already resided in Southwest Virginia, primarily in Roanoke City, Roanoke County, or the New River Valley. Many of the students who work under the supervision of faculty members as research assistants also receive financial compensation, usually from the faculty members’ research grants but sometimes from winning highly competitive individual fellowship awards from federal agencies or private foundations.
The current group of 27 faculty research team leaders were recruited to the institute from multiple prominent universities and academic medical centers, including Baylor College of Medicine in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, Brandeis University in Boston, Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Harvard University in Boston, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and in Research Triangle Park, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Arkansas for Health Sciences in Little Rock, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and the University of Washington in Seattle. Similarly, while some of the research fellows and technical staff come from other institutions, others are from right here in Southwest Virginia. Many of these faculty as well as staff and some of the research fellows purchase or rent homes in the area. All have become engaged members of our community.
Some of the faculty research team leaders arrive at the institute at an early stage of their career, having just completed their advanced education and training, usually over a five-year period for their Ph.D. followed by two to five additional years of postdoctoral training. They are then ready to establish an independent research laboratory.. Others are recruited at a more senior stage of their careers, having already led research programs at other institutions that included being awarded and successfully managing research grants, primarily from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Most of these faculty research team leaders have already received multiple job offers from some of the nation’s other leading institutions. Ultimately, each must decide if the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC has the resources, facilities, intellectual stimulation, and entrepreneurial ecosystem best suited for their programs to thrive, and if the Roanoke community is the right fit for them. I can say unequivocally that the welcoming community here has been a major factor in multiple successful recruitments (including for my wife Sandra and I when we arrived here from Houston in 2010).
In relocating to Roanoke, faculty research team leaders, their postdoctoral fellows and technical staff are often accompanied by a partner or spouse who may also have a career and a commitment to participate in community service, further contributing to our region.
Once here, each faculty research team leader runs the equivalent of a small business in their laboratory — recruiting and managing staff, competing for research grant funding, managing technical and financial operations, publishing their research, and training and educating students and fellows. We will talk more about that in the fourth installment after I share some of the particular research programs in the next installment.