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Using technology to drive scientific advances

Faculty at Yale school of medicine have a long tradition of innovation in the technology sphere. Dean Robert J. Alpern, MD, discusses the school’s current technological strengths, some of the challenges Yale faces, and initiatives he believes will help continue carrying the school forward into the 21st century.

How is Yale School of Medicine taking advantage of advances in technology?

Increasingly, advances in science are limited by advances in technology. In some fields, without certain devices, it’s impossible to conduct clinical research. Top schools, including Yale, have to identify which cutting-edge technologies will give science and researchers the best opportunities, and invest in them. Advanced technologies are often very expensive in terms of money and expertise, so we’ve stepped forward to fund facilities that have the potential to be widely used by researchers. Cryo-electron microscopy is one recent example of this; no individual investigator could afford it, so the medical school and the provost’s office made a major investment in cryo-electron microscopy. Not just purchasing the equipment and finding a space for it, but also creating a core with technical expertise so that investigators who need it for research but lack the mechanical know-how are able to use it.

How has that changed over your tenure?

We’re able to do extraordinary things that just weren’t possible 20 years ago. A great example of this is DNA sequencing. When the instrumentation became available so that any university could perform state-of-the-art DNA or RNA sequencing, Yale made major investments so investigators could have access to this technology. Those who have made use of this resource say it’s been a game-changer.

What has spurred those changes here at Yale?

From the moment I stepped on campus, it became clear to me that one of the people really driving investment in technology to support research was Carolyn Slayman. Carolyn always believed in supporting this cause, and as the medical school’s finances have improved, it’s been easier to support more and different technological investments for faculty and students. This type of thinking is now common in the top schools, but Carolyn was ahead of her time.

What does the school do if a device is difficult to use or to maintain?

It depends. In some cases, it’s just a question of giving researchers access and training and they’ll be able to use the device themselves. In the case of the cryo-electron microscope, the machine is so complex that many investigators just don’t know how to operate it correctly, and if they make an error, they’ll break it. Some investigators can use it properly and do, in their research. For those who need it, we make certain technical assistance is available. The point is to facilitate research, not bog scientists down with tasks outside their realm of expertise.

How does YSM differ from competitor institutions?

I tend to think about how we’re similar to other top institutions—which strengths are common to leading innovators. First of all, we want to develop technology that’s useful to science and medicine. Second, if we can’t develop it ourselves, we want to be early adopters when others develop an exciting new device. DNA sequencing, again, was a place where we couldn’t develop or adopt at first—if you weren’t part of the Human Genome Project you couldn’t build the DNA sequencers they were using. As soon as the DNA sequencers were developed commercially, we invested in resourcing our faculty with that capability. And it’s really offered our scientists an advantage.