April 2011

Q&A with incoming Scripps president Michael A. Marletta

Marletta talks about the challenges facing Scripps and its future directions.

Photo credit: Michael Barnes, College of Chemistry, UC Berkeley.

Renowned biochemist Michael A. Marletta recently was named the next president of The Scripps Research Institute (which also is home to Journal of Biological Chemistry editor Marty Fedor). Marletta will take the reins from Richard A. Lerner, who has led the nonprofit institution for 25 years, on January 1, 2012. We interviewed Marletta, who currently is the Aldo DeBenedictis distinguished professor of chemistry and professor of biochemistry in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, about his new position.

ASBMB: For readers not familiar with your research, what do you do, in a nutshell?
Marletta: My long-standing interest in enzymology and unusual enzyme-catalyzed reactions led us into nitric oxide synthesis and biological function. Over the years, that has led to more general questions, such as, How does biology tell the difference between molecules like nitric oxide and oxygen? The molecular basis for selective responses to gases such as these and the signaling pathways in eukaryotes and prokaryotes, including pathogens, is a current focus. The application of what we learn to the development of novel therapeutics remains an interest. We have also begun a program looking at Neurospora as a model organism for cellulose degradation.

ASBMB: What do you see as the core strengths of the Scripps Research Institute?
Marletta: Scripps is unique. Richard Lerner’s vision over his 25 years of leading the institution was to recognize the importance of bringing molecular thinking to the first-rate biology that already existed at Scripps. He built a chemistry department from scratch, and when you couple that with a leading program in structural biology and then inextricably link the chemistry and structure to the biology, great things can happen and, in fact, have happened. This model has now spread across the country to Scripps Florida.

ASBMB: What do you think your biggest challenge(s) will be as president of Scripps?
Marletta: I want Scripps to continue to be at the forefront of discovery. To do this, we need to continue to build the science infrastructure and to bring the best of scientists, especially those at the beginning of their careers, to Scripps. To accomplish both of these essential goals, new sources of revenue must be found. I plan to spend my time taking the Scripps message forward to all who will listen and to convince them to support our efforts to make discoveries and cure disease.

ASBMB: What’s your vision of the future for Scripps?
Marletta: This is a very exciting time for biomedical research. Never has the opportunity to interrogate and deeply understand biology been greater. I want Scripps to continue to lead and move into new and exciting areas of discovery. Scripps is one institution and two campuses – La Jolla and Jupiter. The La Jolla campus has a well-defined identity while that for Scripps Florida is quickly evolving. Together with faculty leaders from both campuses, we will chart a course to move forward.

ASBMB: Scripps gets most of its money from the NIH, which has been experiencing ongoing pressure to cut its budget. How do you think this will affect Scripps’ future research efforts?
Marletta: This is a national issue. I don’t deny the potential effect of reduced federal grant support on an institution like Scripps could be significant. The Scripps faculty members have proven themselves to be resilient. That resilience coupled with their drive and zeal for science will carry us a long way. We must diversify and broaden our support base and with success in this, Scripps’ future research efforts will proceed unabated.

ASBMB: During his time as president, Richard Lerner tripled the size of the institute and currently is able to pull in more than $330 million a year for research. Is it intimidating to fill such big shoes?
Marletta: Actually, I was at Scripps last week, and I mentioned this question to Richard. He told me he wears a size 9.5. I wear a size 10, so it seems it’s more his problem than mine. Seriously, the bulk of the value you mentioned includes outside grant support. As I mentioned above, securing Scripps’ future via philanthropy is the goal. With those resources, the next generation of biomedical scholars will come and make the kinds of discoveries expected of Scripps.

Nicole Kresge (nkresge@asbmb.org) is the editor of ASBMB Today. 

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