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 APPOINTMENTS

Nathanson Tapped for Research Post

 

Dr. Neal Nathanson, the former chair of microbiology in Penn’s Medical Center and, more recently, director of the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was named vice provost for research, effective December 1. He is responsible for overseeing the policies and administration of the University’s entire $500 million research enterprise. The research post had previously been held by Dr. Ralph Amado, professor of physics.
   
“Penn’s research enterprise has grown exponentially over these last 10 years, and the landscape in which our scientists conduct research has changed dramatically,” noted Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, the provost. “President [Judith] Rodin and I are thrilled that someone of Neal’s stature will head our research efforts. I can’t think of anyone with a better combination of world-class personal research and science policy experience at the national and local level to lead our research efforts in the near term.”
   
The 73-year-old Nathanson first came to the University in 1979 as professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology, and held the chairman’s post for 15 years; he then spent another two years as vice dean for research and research training in the School of Medicine. From 1998 until this past September, he was director of the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health.
   
“Although there is a strong research infrastructure at Penn, there’s always room for improvement in infrastructure,” he said in an interview. “So the vision I have is trying to make the research environment as friendly and as supportive for the research community as possible.”
   
Certain aspects of Penn’s research program have been under a cloud since the death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger, a patient in a gene-therapy study, in September 1999. (A lawsuit brought by the Gelsinger family against the University was settled in November. See story on page 21.) Since then, the University has been working to correct any problems associated with its research.
   
Although Nathanson didn’t mention the Gelsinger case specifically, he acknowledged that “there are a lot of operational issues that are really a work in progress that I didn’t start but that clearly need to be taken to completion. We have a whole set of issues in the regulatory arena and in the area of human subjects. Institutional review boards are responsible for ensuring the safety of human subjects and all the things that go along with it, including consent forms and conflict-of-interest issues. All of that is a major challenge.”
   
Nathanson also noted that “we’re in the middle of an evolution, or revolution” in the way research information is stored, as computers are rendering hard copy obsolete. “When you have a research enterprise that runs $500 million a year, it’s enormously complicated to move” all that information to electronic systems, he said, though he pointed out that “all of our peers” face the same challenge as Penn.
   
Nathanson, who earned his bachelor’s degree and his medical degree from Harvard University, received his clinical training in internal medicine at the University of Chicago. After two years heading the Polio Surveillance Unit at the Centers for Disease Control, he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, where he rose to head of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Epidemiology. He has served as president of the American Epidemiological Society and as editor of Epidemiologic Reviews. All told, he has almost 40 years of experience as a faculty member and administrator in research-based institutions.
   
Given that he’s been at Penn almost 20 years, he said, his familiarity with the research community and administrators should give him the “advantage of a fast start”—though he acknowledged that he still has a fair amount to learn about the research performed at some of Penn’s schools. The real issue, he said, “is broadening one’s background to understand the research cultures at such a large and diverse university.”
   
“It was truly good fortune that Neal was finishing his work with the NIH just as we were conducting the search for a vice provost for research,” said Barchi. “Fortune smiled and we couldn’t be more pleased that someone with his depth and experience has taken this leadership position.”


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