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On July 7 Provost Robert J. Zimmer and Will-iam T. Speck, director and CEO of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, signed an agreement establishing a joint graduate program in biological and environmental sciences, the first of a series of joint Brown-MBL ventures that will take place over the next few years. Recruiting for the new graduate program begins this fall; accepted students will study at both institutions and will receive Brown degrees. Students will benefit from faculty exchanges between Brown and the MBL, as well as from research collaboration between the two institutions.
The MBL, whose faculty and students have included forty-eight Nobel laureates, is among the world’s premier research institutions in a wide range of biological sciences, including biomedicine, genomics, and environmental science. The laboratory, says Brown professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Mark Bertness, has “field programs around the world and world-class research in molecular evolution, neurobiology, and cell biology. Plus they have a series of training courses at the faculty level that is the best anywhere.” What the MBL has lacked, however, is the ability to offer advanced degrees, a situation the institution sought to change last year by looking for an academic partner.
Enter Brown, which is in the process of beefing up both its faculty and graduate programs. A constant problem at a small university like Brown is assembling enough faculty to support many new research areas. The MBL partnership, says Bertness, a marine biologist who was one of its architects, “will blow out this obstacle” in some areas; he cites “just two selfish examples” in his own field: large-scale ecology and human impacts on ecosystems.
Already the union has borne fruit. Just weeks after it was formalized, NASA announced the continuation of a five-year, multimillion-dollar MBL grant for astrobiological research in Spain. The project, which also involves scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of North Carolina, is investigating early life forms—specifically bacteria similar to the type that is among the candidates for possible life on Mars. Brown planetary geologists James Head and John Mustard, both Mars specialists, have joined the project.
In addition to the NASA venture, Brown is embarking on a multidisciplinary effort involving more than 100 Brown and MBL faculty to address global environmental change. The effort will include large research projects as well as seminars and lectures by leading scholars. A search is under way for a new director for Brown’s Center for Environmental Science, who will oversee the initiative.