As an undergraduate at Princeton, Mark Schlissel was on a pre-med flight path toward realizing a vision — his and his parents’ — of himself as a “proper doctor.” But laboratory science intervened in a big way.
“While I was doing the usual pre-med things, I discovered that I absolutely loved the doing of science — taking ideas and turning them into data that we could argue about and try to interpret. It was enormously empowering and it brought science to life.”
He didn’t have to choose between the doctor’s office and the lab. It was the late 1970s, and the U.S. government wanted to bring more medically trained people into basic biological research. Federal support for combined M.D./Ph.D. programs gave him a clear way forward; he was off to Johns Hopkins.
It was a long haul — seven years for the two degrees, two years of residency in internal medicine, three years as a postdoctoral fellow — but he loved every minute of it. “It didn't feel like I was in school. The work I was doing felt as much like a hobby as a profession; I was already well into my 30s before I got a real job.”
Schlissel wanted to find a research area that would engage a physician’s interest in health and disease (he enjoyed the “proper doctor” part of his training) yet could also be understood at a very molecular, genetic level. He found what he was looking for in the immune system and soon was able to start his own lab — that real job — at Johns Hopkins.
“We were interested in cells called B-lymphocytes,” he said. “Laboratory mice do not need those cells to survive, so we could work with immune-compromised mice to study mutations and investigate basic biochemical and molecular questions about how the immune system can recognize something that is foreign.” The laboratory tools to do all that, Schlissel said, were evolving at the same time his research program was developing. It was engaging, fulfilling work. His research agenda grew at Johns Hopkins until 1999, when he moved everything to the University of California–Berkeley.
He was just finishing 20 years of research in his own lab — with steadily increasing levels of administrative responsibility that made him dean of biological sciences — when news came that Brown University was looking for a provost. Brown announced his appointment April 5, 2011.
Has it been an easy transition from the lab to the office?
“To be honest, I don’t feel that has happened yet,” Schlissel said. It is really a matter of incremental growth, from student or postdoc work to learning how to coordinate and focus a team of researchers in one’s own lab. “Learning administration — managing people, advising people, developing the resources you need, managing those resources well — is no different from learning all the other career skills that academics need to learn. At every level, you learn as you go,” he said. “Academic leadership by academics — people who know what it’s like to run a research lab, teach, compete for funding, negotiate the crises of tenure and promotion — can be very effective. It's a task that’s tougher if you haven’t actually walked the walk.”
As Brown’s 11th provost and chief academic officer, Schlissel’s portfolio includes most of the University’s core functions: the libraries, computing and IT, the faculty, the academic departments, admission and financial aid, University research, undergraduate and graduate education, and international affairs.
“That breadth is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of this position. Like most academic people, I'm a lifelong learner. I want to understand what represents the forefront of activities in humanities, the arts, the social sciences, and the sciences beyond biology and medicine,” he said. “Fortunately, it turns out that the qualities of decision making in one discipline are broadly applicable. Organizing a process among colleagues that leads to a good decision doesn't require that the person doing the organizing have a professional-level understanding of the discipline.”
He will maintain his lab in Berkeley for a full year so that graduate students can finish work on their degrees and postdocs can complete their fellowships. He intends to move what will then be a smaller lab to Brown and to keep it going against the day when his term as provost is over and he can become a full-time biology professor again.
He knows it may take time — “at least a whole academic year to thoroughly wrap my hands around Brown, its strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, personality, opportunities,” he said. “It’s a big learning curve for me, so I don’t plan to think about much beyond getting very good at being Brown’s provost. But I am all moved in at the provost’s residence on Cooke Street. It’s a lovely place — and it’s been a long time since I've been able to walk to work.”