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Archive for Saturday, May 3, 2008

Simons: One individual with a powerful vision can inspire many

May 3, 2008

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What a difference one man can make.

In 1967 Takeru Higuchi joined Kansas University as a Regents Professor of Pharmacy and Chemistry and in the 20 short subsequent years before he died, he showed what an individual with vision, high energy, a constant desire to excel and challenge, who possesses great intelligence and superior leadership skills, can achieve.

He was a tremendous asset for the university in many, many ways and even though he died in 1987, what he did while at KU, should serve as an example and reminder of the importance of vision, high energy and leadership when recruiting individuals for responsible positions.

What is required for an academic program at a university, Kansas University for example, to achieve true excellence?

What comes first: funds to pay for equipment, facilities and salaries to attract top-flight faculty members or the vision, energy and leadership skills of a leader who by his or her presence will attract highly skilled faculty members, financial support and outstanding students?

Higuchi was a unique individual and he demonstrated what one man can accomplish in a relatively short 20 years.

His drive, high energy, vision, commitment to excellence and leadership did wonders for the School of Pharmacy, the department of chemistry and the entire university. Today, the School of Pharmacy is considered one of the best, if not the best, in the country and one of the world's top schools. The department of chemistry has a long history of excellence at KU and Higuchi played a significant role in helping build excellence and vision in both of these academic, research areas.

One of the many lasting benefits of Higuchi's presence at KU is the Takeru Higuchi Memorial Lecture, which brings world leaders in medical research to campus.

This week, J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., was the 10th Higuchi lecturer at KU, delivering one address for an audience comprised primarily of faculty and students and one later in the day for the public, including faculty and students.

The title of his first presentation was "Genomics: From Humans to the Environment," and the second program was titled "A Genomic View of Life."

Venter has compiled a fantastic record and is considered one of the leading scientists in the field of genomic research, focusing his latest work on how the synthesizing of genes in the lab may change the course of humanity. He is a superb speaker and his enthusiasm and interest in genomic research is infectious. The scope of his research projects and his vision of what a greater knowledge of genomics can mean for the world and its people is fascinating as well as possibly disturbing. He has opened many new doors into genomic research that eventually could affect our lives in so many ways.

In addition to KU faculty and students and other interested parties, Venter also had a small, but intensely interested audience of skilled high school students. A group of Blue Valley North biology and advance placement students were in the audience to hear the famed scientist. They also had their pictures taken with Venter.

This all took place because of the initiative of a Blue Valley North teacher who learned about Venter's lecture and asked KU's Valentino Stella if he could bring his students to hear Venter's presentation.

Stella has been the principal organizer of the Higuchi lectures and he was enthusiastic in inviting the high schoolers. Everyone was a winner - the students hearing and being challenged by a world class scientist and KU able to host these outstanding students and expose them to exciting opportunities at KU.

Stella has done an excellent job in securing Higuchi lecture speakers. The first, in 1989, was Dr. Arthur Kornberg, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University's School of Medicine and a Nobel Laureate.

He was followed by Dr. Judah Folkman in 1991. Folkman was professor of pediatric surgery at Harvard Medical School.

In 1993, Daniel Koshland Jr., Ph.D., professor emeritus of molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, was the lecturer.

Nobel Laureate Gertrude Belle Elion, D.Sc., professor emeritus, Burroughs Wellcome Co., was the 1995 speaker.

The fifth Higuchi lecturer was Dr. Leroy E. Hood, professor of biomedical sciences and director of the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center.

Next, in 1999, was Dr. D.A. Henderson, Johns Hopkins University's distinguished service professor.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., was the seventh Higuchi lecturer in 2001. He was professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Genetics and Aging Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The eighth Higuchi presentation was delivered in 2004 by Dr. Floyd E. Bloom. He was chairman of the Department of Neuropharmacology at The Scripps Research Institute.

Dr. Brian Druker, investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and JELD-WEN chair of Leukemia Research at Oregon Health & Science University Cancer Institute, spoke last year.

Venter is the founder, chairman and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not-for-profit research organization in California. More than 500 scientists and staff members are engaged in human, microbial, plant and environmental genomic research, the exploration of social and ethical issues in genomics, and seeking alternative energy solutions through genomics.

A great deal will be written and heard about Venter's research efforts in the coming years and these efforts are bound to affect the lives of millions.

Stella deserves thanks and appreciation for his leadership in overseeing the Higuchi lecture series.

The success of the program, however, can in many ways be attributed to Higuchi's wife, Aya. When KU Professor of Chemistry Dick Schowen and Stella first visited with Mrs. Higuchi about the lectureship and possible invitees, she told the two men to make it the premier science lectureship and go for the very best!

This has proven to be the case and reflects what Higuchi was all about.

He and his wife, and those he recruited to come to KU, all have the common goal to "go for the very best," which in other words means, "don't settle for second best."

According to knowledgeable authorities the speakers secured by Stella and his associates are indeed "giants in their respective fields and in science in general."

How pleased Tak Higuchi and his wife, Aya, who died last year, would be with the Higuchi lecture series and how they have enriched and stimulated so many.

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