Life Sciences Revisioning
VCU Life Sciences was initiated in 2000 with the goal of advancing life sciences research and education by serving as an academic link across the Monroe Park and MCV campuses and to serve as a focal point for fostering interdisciplinary approaches. The bulletin for the 2003 academic year states:
VCU entered a new era when it implemented, as one of its highest priorities, a new university-wide matrix academic organization called VCU Life Sciences, created in response to the need to prepare students for the anticipated growth in new life sciences jobs in the coming decades. The skills identified for these jobs require highly interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches, often falling between the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. The way that the life sciences are understood and taught is likely to be fundamentally different, with increasing emphasis on systems biosciences as an important complement to more traditional, purely reductive approaches.
Over the intervening 23 years, the units in VCU Life Sciences have grown to include:
- Center for Biological Data Science (CBDS): Administering a Bachelor of Science (BS), Master of Science (MS), and Accelerated BS to MS programs in Bioinformatics. The BS degree in Bioinformatics was the first in Virginia (there are now two) and is among the largest such programs in the country.
- Center for Environmental Studies (CES): Administering BS, MEnvs, MS degree programs, two SCHEV-approved Baccalaureate Certificates (Sustainable Innovation & Outdoor Leadership), and a nationally recognized River Management Certificate. CES was ranked #3 in the Nation for the number of Environmental Studies majors graduated by public institutions.
- Center for Life Sciences Education (CLSE): Administering an interdisciplinary PhD program serving students and advisors from units across VCU.
- Rice Rivers Center (RRC): This research station was independently funded through donations to VCU Life Sciences and currently has a directive to serve both research and education/outreach goals.
About Our Process
The following is the work of the Life Sciences Revisioning Committee. Members of the committee included: Nicholas Fetzer, Paul Bukaveckas, Jennifer Ciminelli, Lian Currie, Stephen Fong and Rima Franklin
In response to the Provost’s request to consider the future goals and direction of Life Sciences, the Life Sciences Revisioning Committee was formed to solicit proposals from the Life Sciences community. The committee was composed of individuals representing each of the units in Life Sciences, the Vice Provost’s Office, and the Department of Biology. The committee’s objective was to facilitate and assist in the creation of proposals in order to develop a menu of options for future directions. It was not the intent of the committee to rank or otherwise evaluate the proposals.
A portal was created to submit proposals, ask questions, or submit thoughts on the process. Two town-hall style meetings (11/30/22 and 1/11/23) were held for the Life Sciences community to discuss the proposals submitted and to review this document prior to submission.
A short survey to gather the opinions of the Life Sciences community on the proposals submitted was also fielded, the results of which are included in the committee’s submission.
About This Document
The intent of this document is to provide the Provost’s Office with a summary of the proposals submitted to the Life Sciences Revisioning Committee. These proposals have been organized into categories based on the broader organizational structure they propose, specifically focusing on: (1) expanding/re-focusing STEM units, (2) sustainability, (3) data science, and (4) proposals that do not fit into the previous three categories. Within each category, the proposals are organized by alphabetical order of the proposal’s title and are hyperlinked to the full proposal.
- This proposal recommends the creation of a School of Life Sciences which would serve as a nexus for Life Sciences research and education on the Monroe Park Campus and could be viewed as more of an equal partner and collaborator with the health-focused units on the MCV Campus, as well as serving as a better partner for Biomedical and Life Sciences Engineering.
- This new School would likely be financially robust, as the home of the majority of pre-health majors at the university. The new school would likely increase resources available to the ILS doctoral program and give ILS students greater flexibility in selecting an academic advisor. These changes have the potential to increase research output and interunit collaboration.
- This proposal recommends the creation of a STEM College & College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
- It suggests VCU consolidate a STEM College separate from a Humanities College, within the Monroe Park campus, fostering collaboration by improving connectivity between disciplines. Reduce the overall number of MBU’s at VCU by one as Life Sciences, CHS, and Engineering would be reorganized into just two new MBUs.
- The financial impact of such a reorganization on the new colleges is difficult to determine. The STEMcollege would likely be in robust shape, but it is harder to judge that of Humanities and Social Sciences.
- This proposal recommends VCU Life Sciences be “re-visioned” as a Catalyst (“an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action”), a new unit that will act as a Catalyst to an integrative, transdisciplinary research and academic program in sustainable systems. The proposal uses The University of Michigan’s School of the Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) as a model.
- The proposal recommends an academic approach for trans- and interdisciplinary studies and also recommends creation / expansion of existing faculty/student-led programs that provide resources to the VCU and the greater Community.
- The new unit will need to have a strong vision and commitment to innovative incentives and the resources to build a truly interdisciplinary program required to create a sustainable future.
- This proposal recommends the creation of a novel interdisciplinary unit with a general focus on training and research that looks to future problems and their solutions. This unit would likely have at least three major research and training foci:
- Sustainability. Dealing with the increasing pressures of changing global landscape due to factors such as climate change, increasing population, etc. This proposed school would be a natural home for sustainability training and initiatives.
- Data Science. Data collection pipelines are increasing the volume of data well beyond any traditional means of storage, analysis, and visualization. Data Science has become a global keystone initiative, and which can serve as a future blueprint for interdisciplinary computational literacy training and research across a wide matrix of the university.
- Innovation. Future generations need to be trained to consider innovative solutions to not only those problems we currently face, but those of which we can barely conceive, but will certainly happen, whether they relate to climate change, global health, inequity, etc.
- This proposal recommends using the current footprint of VCU Life Sciences as a scaffold to expand and create innovative interdisciplinary collaborations towards the development of a College-level entity focusing broadly on Life Sciences & Sustainability.
- This proposal further recommends:
- VCU Life Sciences be promoted to a College, led by a Dean.
- The centers of Biological Data Science, Environmental Studies, and Urban & Regional Studies and Planning become Departmental-level entities through SCHEV approval.
- The existing undergraduate academic program in Interdisciplinary Sciences, the current Certificate in Sustainable Innovation, and the doctoral program in Integrative Life Sciences should be integrated under a new Department of Interdisciplinary Sciences and Sustainability.
- Programs and activities run through the Office of Sustainability and the Rice Rivers Center will continue and be expanded as the on-campus and on the “river campus” foci for sustainability-related education, research, and outreach activities.
- This proposal establishes a university-level Division of Sustainability to integrate teaching, research, and operational aspects of VCU with the goal of making sustainability an identifiable hallmark across all of VCU. It would create teaching and research opportunities for students and faculty spanning from broad entry points beginning as early as freshman year.
- The approach proposes reorganization of existing components of VCU in a centralized-decentralized structure that requires minimal initial financial investment but can grow new sustainability initiatives across the university through collaboration with unit-level interests.
- The proposal includes creating a Division of Sustainability in the Provost’s Office to build university-level sustainability collaborations.
- The centers within Life Sciences would become Departments and move to existing colleges/schools.
- This proposal recommends the creation of an Institute or School of Data Science that would centralize quantitative and computational training, better allow for new initiatives, and help reduce redundancy across units and the university. It would also better allow for the creation of new, collaborative degrees in Data Science.
- If this proposal were pursued as a virtual framework, it would remain generally compatible with all of the other plans.
Another proposal was submitted that suggested an informatics institute which was very similar to the above. It can be found here.
- This proposal only addresses the future of the Rice Rivers Center, and makes 5 recommendations:
- To place the Rice Center within the Office of the Provost to maximize its use as a university-level asset;
- To either establish new faculty lines for the Rice Center, or to allow for the creation of cost-neutral joint appointments with academic units by allocating a portion of their salary to the Rice Center;
- To conduct an external peer review process to understand how to maximize Rice’s effectiveness among regional field stations;
- To renew focused engagement by the Provost and VPR with federal agencies and DAR with the Rice Board of Trustees to ensure continued success in development activities related to Rice;
- To renegotiate the SLA agreement between Rice and Facilities to ensure sustainable funding for Rice operations.
- This proposal addresses the immediate future of Life Sciences, based on the assumption that many of the more expansive and transformative proposals cannot be fully realized before the start of the 2023-24 academic year.
- This proposal recommends the following:
- The process to convert CBDS and CES into formal departments begin immediately, with their likely formal transition to departments occurring over the Summer of 2024.
- Life Sciences should continue to operate as is under an interim Vice Provost until such a time that the long-term plan(s) are completed, presumably by June 30, 2024.
- If a decision is made to immediately (Summer 2023) dissolve Life Sciences while long-term plans are established, control of the ILS PhD program could be transferred to the Department of Biology.