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Timothy F. Murphy, MD; Norma J. Nowak, PhD; Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD

Timothy F. Murphy, Norma J. Nowak and Jennifer A. Surtees lead a Community of Excellence that will advance the science of genomics and the microbiome.

GEM Community of Excellence to Address Global Societal Problems

Published December 10, 2015

The Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) community — part of a University at Buffalo initiative that seeks new approaches to global challenges — has had its inaugural meeting.

“The overall goal of GEM is to integrate the science of genomics and microbiomics — to advance those disciplines — and also to educate our community on the importance of the sciences, because they are literally going to change how medicine is practiced in the next decade.”
SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research

UB is investing $25 million in its Communities of Excellence, which harness the strengths of faculty across disciplines to confront pressing challenges facing humankind.

The GEM community is led by Norma J. Nowak, PhD, professor of biochemistry and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life SciencesJennifer A. Surtees, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry; and Timothy F. Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research.

Enhancing UB’s Reputation in Genomics

The GEM community will work to advance the science of genomics and the microbiome and enhance UB’s reputation in genomics to make the university a national model for promoting and increasing genomic literacy.

The interplay of the human genome, the environment and the microbiome — the collection of microorganisms residing in and on the human body — affect a person’s risk for certain diseases. Knowledge of these interactions will help personalize treatments.

“The overall goal of GEM is to integrate the science of genomics and microbiomics — to advance those disciplines — and also to educate our community on the importance of the sciences, because they are literally going to change how medicine is practiced in the next decade,” says Murphy.

Increasing Genomic Literacy via Interdisciplinary Work

The key to increasing genomic literacy and engaging and empowering the public, the group said, is through interdisciplinary research and creative activities that involve scholars across the university.

Not only will this technique improve scientific inquiry; it will help maximize the impact of the group’s discoveries, says Surtees.

The GEM community will engage faculty in the arts, humanities and social sciences to promote an exploration of the ethical, legal and social implications of genome and microbiome research. 

“We are encouraging collaborations at the interfaces of different types of disciplines. We want to try to introduce genomic themes to a broad swath of people in a way that engages them,” Surtees explains.

“That is where our collaboration with the arts and the humanities will really come into play. We are trying to form a true community that embraces all of the disciplines represented by the university to advance the science, as well as communicate that science to everybody.”

New Communities of Excellence Announced in May

The Communities of Excellence initiative is an innovative and integrated approach to addressing critical societal challenges through interdisciplinary research, education and engagement.

In May of 2015, the university announced the establishment of GEM and two other communities: Global Health Equity and SMART (Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies).

The three were chosen from nearly 100 initial concept proposals submitted by faculty teams. They were selected after a yearlong proposal process involving recommendations from external and internal expert reviews.

Final proposals were reviewed by a panel chaired by Venu Govindaraju, interim vice president for research and economic development. Panelists included SUNY Distinguished Professor Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and senior associate dean for inclusion and cultural enhancement.

RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water), an interdisciplinary institute that focuses on complex environmental issues, served as UB’s model for the Communities of Excellence. It launched in 2014.

More than 300 UB Faculty Participate in Initiative

Through Communities of Excellence, teams of faculty work together to find solutions, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding.

“What is innovative about this initiative is that it’s brought together faculty from many different schools to develop new research programs, new academic programs and new ways to engage the community,” says Charles F. Zukoski, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. 

More than 300 faculty members from across the university participate in the Communities of Excellence; the initiative is expected to involve faculty from all UB schools.

Faculty leaders within communities plan to create new educational opportunities that cut across multiple academic disciplines to address the focus area of each community. 

The initiative emerged from the UB 2020 plan to advance the university’s academic and research strengths in key areas.