Q&A with New Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer

Art Kramer was named as the fourth permanent Beckman Institute Director in May of 2010, replacing Interim Director Tamer Başar. Kramer follows in the footsteps of Founding Director Ted Brown, Jiri Jonas, and Pierre Wiltzius. In June Kramer sat down for a question and answer session about his new position, the current state of the Beckman Institute, and his hopes for the future.

Art Kramer was named as the fourth permanent Beckman Institute Director in May of 2010, replacing Interim Director Tamer Başar. Kramer follows in the footsteps of Founding Director Ted Brown, Jiri Jonas, and Pierre Wiltzius. In June Kramer sat down for a question and answer session about his new position, the current state of the Beckman Institute, and his hopes for the future.

What have the first few days been like for you as Director?

I’m learning a lot very quickly. There are certainly many skills you gain over the years as a faculty member who has served in several minor administrative roles. But once you’re a full-time administrator there are many additional skills to learn and many meetings to attend. I’ve enjoyed my first few weeks, particularly in terms of getting to know the staff, faculty, and students at Beckman and learning more than I ever thought I would know about the functioning of the University. I look forward to further expanding my horizons over the next several months and meeting more of the members of Beckman.

You have been a researcher for more than 30 years. How do you think your new position as Beckman Institute Director will impact your research?

I certainly have been a very active researcher for many years and have been at Beckman since it opened in 1989. I have a large group of students and postdocs in my lab and lots of colleagues I collaborate with at the University and around the world. I think my personal research has to become a bit more focused and probably reduced in scope, both in breadth and depth. But as the director of a research institute, I also believe I have to keep my hand in research, and I will. I will probably write fewer grants, at least as a Principal Investigator, and have fewer students that I work with in my lab, but I will continue to do interdisciplinary research. However, I also expect to greatly expand other areas of my professional life and to support and promote the world class science and engineering being pursued by the faculty, staff, and students at the Beckman Institute and across the campus.

When someone takes over as head of a major research facility like Beckman, people always want to know about their new director’s vision going forward. Could you tell us your vision for the Beckman Institute?

There are a number of things I would like to accomplish. First, I plan to continue to support and nurture both the well-developed and developing research areas at Beckman, and to ensure that we continue to play a national and international leadership role in the scientific domains we have chosen to address. I also plan to work with my colleagues at Beckman and across campus to start a new initiative on Healthy Bodies, Brains, Minds, and Communities. I see this not as a traditional Beckman theme or initiative that is separable from the other themes or initiatives, but one that overlaps and essentially draws students and faculty from the four themes that already exist, as well as others across the University, as a way to focus on a grand challenge in our society, and that is our health. I also plan to continue and indeed expand the support for the graduate students, the undergraduates, and the postdocs at the Beckman Institute to ensure that they fulfill their professional objectives and career aspirations. Finally, I plan to involve the community in the research endeavors at Beckman to a much greater extent than we have done in the past.

 What are some of the things at Beckman that are happening or you know will happen soon that excite you as you begin your tenure as Beckman Director?

I think some of the things I already mentioned, starting the new initiative, continuing to move ahead with imaging at the Beckman Institute. We have several new research machines and facilities that we are just in the process of setting up at the Beckman. The Biomedical Imaging Center is clearly growing, after recently moving from south campus to Beckman. But we want to continue to move ahead with all of the world-class, professionally run facilities we have at Beckman, from the Visualization Laboratory to the Microscopy Suite to the Illinois Simulator Laboratory to the Biomedical Imaging Center.    

Could you talk about the Healthy Bodies, Brains, Minds, and Communities Developing Initiative that you have been involved with? What are your hopes for this initiative?

I would like to see this initiative bring together faculty across the four themes, as well as faculty that aren’t currently involved in the Beckman Institute throughout campus and at other institutions. So I see this as an initiative that almost sits as an umbrella over some of the other initiatives and focuses on a broad but significant topic, and that is health in the United States and across the globe. We will probably have two co-chairs and they remain to be determined. 

People at the University of Illinois are, of course, worried about the funding situation with the state of Illinois. How do you think those financial challenges will impact the Beckman Institute?

Like every other unit on campus the Beckman Institute is facing challenging budget cuts. I think that through very efficient planning with Tamer and Van Anderson and others, we at the Beckman Institute are able to handle them, at least for now. None of us knows about the future but I think for this next year we certainly have a plan to deal with the budget reductions, both from the Beckman Foundation and from the state of Illinois. We clearly have to continue to work to find and develop alternative sources of revenue to support our research portfolio. This is one reason Pierre Wiltzius worked so hard to get permission to hire a Director of Development (Tim Montague was later hired during Başar’s tenure). It’s tough to do development with such a young institute because we don’t have alumni in their 60s and 70s who have built substantial wealth. But nonetheless Tim is working on a number of potential leads, along with faculty and other development officers. However, it is also important to keep in mind that grants from NIH, NSF, DoD are our most important source of support for our research, so it will be imperative for Beckman faculty, staff, and students to continue to compete for such grants.

Even with those financial challenges it is an exciting time to be doing science, especially with all the advances in technology. How do you visualize the future of scientific research at Beckman?

We will continue to support the themes at Beckman and to ensure that the questions that we address are at the forefront of research. Beckman is a fantastic place to do research both because of the bright young people we have here, the graduate students and postdocs, and the very collaborative faculty who train them to do interdisciplinary research, but also because of the great staff we have here and the professionally run facilities. I have no doubt we will continue to stay at the cutting edge of research in a variety of the fields that Beckman addresses and to develop important new research themes, now and in the future.