Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., Vice Chancellor for Research; Director, Midwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases; Professor of Medicine and of Molecular Microbiology

Infectious Disease Expert Supports, Strengthens Faculty Research

By Betsy Rogers

The nation’s protections against bioterrorism have increased exponentially in the past six years, according to Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. And Stanley, as a leading researcher in infectious diseases, director of the Midwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases (MRCE), and Washington University’s vice chancellor for research, is in a position to speak with authority.

Stanley’s work to combat bio-threats exemplifies not only his contributions to science and the common good but also the multiplying roles he willingly has assumed at the University and beyond. A professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology, he researches enteric pathogens, digestive-tract microbes that cause dysentery, widespread suffering, and millions of deaths annually—especially among children. In 2003, he won National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for the MRCE, a multi-university consortium dedicated to strengthening defenses against bio-threats.

MRCE investigations so far have yielded critical new findings. “We’re really emphasizing bio-preparedness,” he explains. “We’re interested in understanding more about the basic science of these agents to help develop the next generation of vaccines.” The Center focuses on broad-spectrum solutions, effective against more than one agent.

Pathogen discovery is another thrust. “Nobody knew about SARS 10 years ago,” he notes. “So we look at people who’ve had unexplained disease. Work at our Center so far has led to the identification of several new viruses.” Understanding these microbes, in turn, permits developing broadly applicable counter measures, which could well buy time and save lives in an epidemic.

“Absolutely, we’ve made tremendous progress in the last six years,” Stanley concludes.

Larry Shapiro, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, says Stanley’s contributions are extremely broad and significant. “He is a consummate expert in infectious disease and particularly those agents that might be employed by terrorists,” notes Shapiro, A.B. ’68, M.D. ’71, also the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics.

As critical as bio-preparedness is, Stanley’s work extends far beyond the bio-threat arena. As vice chancellor for research, he manages the University-wide $500 million research enterprise, supporting faculty who are creating new knowledge to improve the lot of humankind.

“Sam plays a critical role in helping to formulate policies and implement them to strengthen research,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

Stanley’s research portfolio is daunting, encompassing compliance with rapidly proliferating regulations, research policy development, grants and contracts management, faculty and staff training programs, and technology transfer—taking discoveries to market where they can benefit the public.

“I have an outstanding team,” Stanley says to explain how he manages these expansive responsibilities.

Still, the position presents challenges. One is the current freeze on NIH funding. “How do I help faculty become more competitive?” he muses. “How do we help them translate great ideas into successful applications?”

Competing for limited funding is part of the puzzle; expanding that funding is another. In July 2007, Research!America, the nation’s largest nonprofit research alliance, appointed Stanley a Paul G. Rogers Ambassador, one of 50 top global health experts charged with advocating for greater public and private research funding. Stanley helped author a major report presented to Congress, and he continues to work to educate legislators about research’s indispensable role.

“Innovation is what has allowed our country to lead the world,” he observes. “To be innovative, you need to support research in chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, and the life sciences. Frankly, we’re already behind some other countries in chemistry, physics, and engineering. We’re in a pitched battle right now, because these other countries are investing tremendously. We have to make sure that Congress gets this message.”

It’s also a national security issue. A bioterrorist attack or an influenza pandemic, he points out, “could cripple our country.”

Wrighton appreciates Stanley’s efforts. “The federal government is the biggest sponsor of fundamental research,” he notes. “It is essential that people understand its value, the essential benefits that come from it. Sam has done an excellent job in that arena.”

Elsewhere on the grants front, Stanley is working hard to diversify the University’s funding portfolio. “We’re not at all planning to move away from the NIH,” Stanley says, “but there are advantages in trying to grow our funding sources as well. I’ve been trying to do a better job of identifying potential partners in industry—the research areas they’re interested in and how they align with Washington University’s strengths.”

“…I’ve been trying to do a better job of identifying potential partners in industry … and how they align with Washington University’s strengths.”

Another challenge is the growing regulatory burden. The increasingly detailed information the government requires of researchers is justified, Stanley believes. “We acknowledge that and try to do it very well,” he says. But it also places demands on investigators and thus takes time away from their research. The challenge is to find less burdensome ways to help faculty fulfill these requirements. The research office continually develops new training modules, available both live and online, on subjects ranging from research ethics to human studies research.

Shapiro says Stanley has a gift for encouraging researchers even while promoting compliance. “Sam strikes a wonderful balance,” Shapiro says, “between enforcing regulations and helping faculty achieve their dreams.”

The office also supports researchers with an electronic newsletter filled with updates on funding opportunities, compliance issues, and new training modules. Stanley and his team meet with departments, present demonstrations and grant-writing seminars, hold research fairs on both campuses, and work with department chairs.

“It’s tremendously rewarding,” Stanley says, “to be able to help faculty do exciting things.”

Among the most exciting are large projects undertaken by multidisciplinary research centers, like the new International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability. “We remain absolutely committed to individual investigators,” Stanley says. “They are the creative force that really has driven discovery. But more and more we’re seeing very large questions that are difficult for a single investigator to tackle, projects that require a multidisciplinary team.”

New initiatives are under way to support applications for these center grants—a database of previously successful grants, a list of potential collaborators, a comprehensive catalog of the University’s core facilities and resources, and panels of emeritus and senior faculty willing to review grants before submission.

The MRCE is such a center, and for Wrighton it is an example of Stanley’s leadership and collaborative style. “It involves other research universities; it’s a major program in financial terms and significant in connection with the bio-threats that face us as a nation,” Wrighton says.

Shapiro, too, respects Stanley’s collegial approach, among numerous strengths. “He has brought knowledge, leadership, collaboration, innovation, and, importantly, a lot of integrity to the job,” Shapiro says.

For his part, Stanley derives great satisfaction from knowing that Washington University research contributes so much to the common good. The research enterprise strengthens the regional economy significantly, and “the kinds of discoveries we’re making here really have the potential to improve people’s lives,” he says.

Betsy Rogers is a freelance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.