Q&A with Stephen Lanier: Wayne State's new research chief wants to 'get parts moving'
Sunday, July 27, 2014
From Crain's Detroit Business
In April, Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson announced that he had hired Stephen Lanier to replace Hilary Ratner as vice president of research. Lanier assumed the position June 16.
Since 2006, Lanier had been the associate provost for research and professor of cell and molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He was also the chief scientific officer and chief research officer at the school.
Lanier got his doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences and postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He spent eight years at Harvard and Massachusetts General as a fellow, instructor and assistant professor.
Before the Medical University post, he was chair of the department of pharmacology at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.
Now on the job a month, Lanier, 58, talked with Crain's reporter Tom Henderson about why he took the job and his priorities.
How did you hear that Wayne State was looking for a VP of research?
The last two or three years, I've been deciding what I wanted to do next. What I really wanted to do was be at a comprehensive research university. Medical University didn't have an engineering school, for example, or a physics department. And I wanted to be in an urban area. I got a call about Detroit from a headhunter I had worked with before who knew what I was thinking about.
Did you say: "What! Detroit"?
I read some things about what was going on here. I read Crain's. There was a new mayor. The city would be coming out of bankruptcy. There seemed to be a vibe. There were a lot of startups. TechTown was interesting to me. I read more about Wayne State, which was right in the middle of it all.
I've actually got a Detroit background. My mother, Joyce, was born in Highland Park, on Pasadena Street. I used to come here every summer as a kid to visit her parents. I remember seeing Al Kaline in the old Tiger Stadium. It must have been about 1965. I was always a huge Tiger fan. And I remember visiting Belle Isle.
So, at least you weren't turned off by the idea of moving from Charleston to Detroit. What happened next?
I came and met with Roy. I knew Roy indirectly, but our paths had never crossed. He had worked closely with the former president of the Medical University. I immediately connected with Roy. It felt very natural. We had a shared vision. Then I saw a bit more of the ecosystem. The (Detroit) Medical Center is huge. I visited TechTown. And I have colleagues at the University of Michigan and Michigan State, so it just clicked.
Did you see the July 13 New York Times Magazine? The cover story was about seeing Detroit through rose-colored glasses, with a cover shot of downtown glowing pink.
I did. I sent it to my mother. She asked me to get her Dan Gilbert's address so she can send him a thank-you note.
So you were fine about the city itself. Was there anything that gave you pause about the job?
I was a bit concerned about the ability to be nimble. I don't want to say "bureaucracy," but a comprehensive research university has a lot of moving parts. Could we be nimble and get those parts moving?
As I met some of the people in the ecosystem and here in the office, I became convinced we could. Before I came here, we hired John Shallman (as senior director of licensing) and Kenneth Massey (as senior director of venture development), and that's a big deal. These are talents who are game changers.
(Shallman had been director of commercialization at Beaumont Health System the past six years, and Massey had been managing director of MicroDose Life Sciences LLC of Farmington Hills and its associated venture capital fund, LifeLine Ventures LLC.)
Anything else give you pause?
The weather. (Laughs.) The weather. I came here for visits in January and February. But, hey, we broke a 100-year-old record for most snow, so we've got that behind us.
You'll still be doing your own research, too?
I'm moving my lab from Charleston here. I'll be setting it up in Scott Hall and the chemistry building. I've been supported by the National Institutes of Health since 1987. For a long time, I've been focused on signal transduction and how cells communicate. I used to run a lab with about 10 researchers, but with my added administrative responsibilities, I'll be down to about three. I won't be bringing anyone here from Charleston. I'll hire a small team. I want to be part of an interdisciplinary group, so I'll be looking for significant interactions with other labs across campus.
Have you found a place to live?
I took an apartment. My family is still in Charleston. My three kids will all be off at college in the fall. I wanted to be in Midtown or downtown, and people told me I might have trouble finding a place. I looked at the Park Shelton. They had one studio apartment, but I didn't move right away and it was gone. I looked at 3909 Woodward. It has 61 apartments. It opened on May 1 and on May 2, 45 of them were taken. I took a Skype tour on the 3rd, sent in a deposit and got the last apartment.
Right after I moved in, I was looking out the window and saw a red carpet in front of Orchestra Hall and a bunch of limousines. I called over to see what was going on, and they said it was a tribute for Dan Gilbert. I asked them if they had any tickets left and they said a few, so I told them to hold one and went on over. It's going to be fun here.
So, what are your marching orders?
To get the new building occupied, the biomedical research building that's under construction across the street from TechTown. I'm really excited about that. I need to really work to develop partnerships with the local community, to make sure the work here has a broad impact. We need to jump-start tech development on campus, to nurture partnerships that will turn research into companies and jobs.
State officials have been critical of the office of research in the past. Last year, it gave the school a grant of $100,000, to be used to bring in a consultant from Chicago to figure out how to improve processes in the tech transfer office.
We've got good people in the office now. I mentioned the two we recently hired. Joan Dunbar (who was appointed director of tech transfer last year) is terrific. I've spent a lot of time meeting with the faculty, doing a lot of listening and reaching out. I tell everyone: "Look forward. Look forward." We're going to be doing good things. I'm excited to be here and excited about the opportunity.
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