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New science, New dean, New directions Merle Olson, Ph.D.

August 2002

by Will Sansom

Scientists use terms that many cannot appreciate: peptide … cytokine … apoptosis … nucleotide … differentiation … deoxyribonucleic acid … polymerase chain reaction. Such words are quite mysterious to the public, but not to the new dean and his outstanding faculty in the Health Science Center’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

"Why is basic science important or interesting to people?" asked Merle S. Olson, Ph.D., who was named dean July 8 after an extensive national search. "It’s because without intense and novel basic science, there would be no possibility of developing new therapies or technologies that improve health."

The Graduate School is the unquestioned center of basic biomedical research in South Texas. No other institution in the region comes close in the amount of peer-reviewed grant funding received for basic scientific research. The school, building on a long track record of success in attracting fiercely competitive federal dollars, showed a 26 percent increase in grant funding in one year. Funding in the Graduate School alone increased from $36,282,000 in Fiscal Year 2000 to $43,138,000 in FY 2001.

Dr. Olson, a distinguished biochemist, served as interim dean of the Graduate School after Sanford A. Miller, Ph.D., retired. A Ph.D. graduate of the University of Minnesota in 1966, he had served as professor and chairman of the Health Science Center’s department of biochemistry since 1983. Dr. Olson has been in numerous leadership positions in the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) and other national and international scientific organizations. He is widely published and a highly sought speaker. He also has extensive teaching expertise, with more than 50 of his graduate students and postdoctoral fellows now serving in universities and research institutions.

"San Antonio has achieved an impressive record of scientific prominence in a very short period of time," Dr. Olson said. Recent Graduate School discoveries include:

• Joel B. Baseman, Ph.D., department of microbiology, and colleagues made important breakthroughs about tiny cells called mycoplasmas, which are among
the most common causes of respiratory and genitourinary infections;
• Wen-Hwa Lee, Ph.D., department of molecular medicine, and colleagues found cell proteins responsible for DNA damage repair and cell cycle control - useful information for developing drugs to treat cancer and other diseases;
• Susan L. Naylor, Ph.D., department of cellular and structural biology, discovered a new tumor suppressor gene called semaphorin;
• Karl E. Klose and John Gunn, Ph.D., department of microbiology, and colleagues began studies of effective oral vaccines for anthrax and tularemia;
• Rui Sousa, Ph.D., department of biochemistry, made one of the first "movies" of the process by which DNA instructions are transcribed into proteins;
• James Stockand, Ph.D., department of physiology, showed that aldosterone, the primary hormoneregulating blood pressure, also activates cell signaling pathways traditionally associated with development of cancer cells;·
• Feng Liu, Ph.D., department of pharmacology, found that a protein involved in insulin action is present in the hypothalamus, a key region in the brain, and that there is less of this protein in the hypothalamuses of aged mice.

"Findings such as these are the building blocks that ultimately lead to new therapies and better quality of life," Dr. Olson reiterated.

The Graduate School offers Doctor of Philosophy programs in the fields of biochemistry, cellular and structural biology, microbiology, molecular medicine, nursing, pharmacology, physiology and radiological sciences. The school has trained nearly 450 research scientists since it was formed in 1972. A Ph.D. in a basic science is one of the most difficult degrees to obtain; candidates generally require five to six years to complete a Ph.D. program, including dissertation preparation and defense.

"Every experiment, every observation produces fundamental understanding that serves as the basis of future progress," Dr. Olson said. His plans call for the Graduate School to continue its tradition of excellence and to become more interdisciplinary by collaborating on teaching and research programs with faculty in the Health Science Center’s medical, dental, nursing and allied health schools.


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