Molecular biologist David G. Skalnik will become associate dean for research and graduate education at the IUPUI School of Science in January. Since 1991, Skalnick has been a researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine, leading a team of three in the study of epigenetics—factors that influence whether certain genes are turned on or turned off.
IBJ: You’ve made your research career in epigenetics. Give us a brief explanation of what that field is.
A: It’s the branch of science that refers not so much to the DNA sequence in our cells, but to the way in which our cells package that DNA or express that DNA in normal development. Most of the cells in our body have the same DNA sequence, but a neuron in the brain and a cell in the liver are doing very different things. In cancer, for example, it’s just as common that there are epigenetic defects [as genetic defects]. That’s been particularly interesting for the pharmaceutical industry because those are potentially reversible defects.
IBJ: Speaking of the pharmaceutical industry, it was hoping for a wave of breakthroughs after the sequencing of the human genome 10 years ago. Is a lack of understanding of epigenetics one reason the reality of DNA sequencing has not lived up to the promise?
A: It is true that there was a big hype up. We didn’t know for sure what was going to come out of it. We now know at the genetic level hundreds of diseases. But it’s been a harder problem to fix these problems once we understand those diseases. And the same can be said for epigenetics.
IBJ: As you begin to oversee graduate education and research at the School of Science, do you have a name-recognition issue to get over in attracting students to come to the school?
A: Clearly, the School of Science has increased its research footprint in recent years. Historically, the school has been focused on the teaching mission; 85 percent of its budget is derived from tuition. I think that the school is expanding, both in terms of faculty and laboratory, and there is a great opportunity to recruit in top-flight researchers.