Multidisciplinary Bioscience – the Stanford Bio-X program

Innovative research at the frontier of the life sciences is being driven more and more by interdisciplinary collaborations involving scientists from both the biological and physical sciences. Institutions around the world are reacting by setting up centres to overcome the parceling up of scientific expertise in traditional departments and to promote the interaction between scientists from different disciplines. A very early example of this was the Bio-X program at Stanford University. Originally proposed by biochemist James Spudich and physicist Steven Chu in 1998 following their successful collaboration that effectively launched the field of single molecule dynamics, Bio-X has developed into a dynamic centre of frontier research in biology. Neuroscientist Carla Shatz, the Director of Bio-X describes the program.

About the author: Carla Shatz is a leading developmental neurobiologist. She is Professor of Biology and Neurobiology and Director of the Bio-X Program at Stanford University. After her PhD studies with Nobel Laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel at Harvard, she moved to Stanford where she spent 13 years before moving to the University of California, Berkeley. Eight years later she moved to Harvard Medical School as the first woman to chair the Neurobiology Department. She returned to Stanford in 2007.

The Bio-X program at Stanford University brings clinicians, biomedical and life science researchers together with engineers, physicists and computational scientists to tackle the complexity of the body in health and disease. The major theme of Bio-X is to unlock the secrets of the human body by treating body and brain as a whole assembly of complex organ systems that interact with each other dynamically. To succeed in this mission, every tool in the scientists’ tool kit is needed, and we need to invent new tools.

Rather than simply study genes, molecules, or even organs in isolation, Bio-X investigators attempt to understand entire systems within the body. More than 400 faculty members from more than 60 departments have joined Bio-X teams, and more than 50 students from across the University have received Bio-X graduate fellowships. These students and faculty work on a broad spectrum of research problems that share at least one of the four goals of Bio-X: to image and simulate life from molecules to mind, to restore the health of cells and tissues, to decode the genetics of health and disease, and to design therapeutic devices and molecular machines.

The cornerstone of the Bio-X program is a seed grant fund (Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program, IIP), which provides critical funding for early-stage, interdisciplinary research. The seed grants provide an average of $150,000 to be used over two years for high-risk research that might not get funding otherwise. This funding allows research programs to get the “proof of concept” necessary to win funding from major federal institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. One example of the type of research these IIP awards enable is the development of a microendoscope that provides an alternative to muscle biopsy. This microendoscope, invented by Professor Mark Schnitzer, is the world's smallest two-photon microscope and has permitted Schnitzer and Professor Scott Delp and their colleagues to view sarcomeres – the micro-machines that drive muscle movement – in real-time, with minimal discomfort to the patient. This technology, made possible by bringing together experts from across the university, will improve understanding of how muscles are altered by spinal cord injuries, strokes or muscular diseases.

Bio-X also has the important goal of training a new generation of scientists and engineers who are unconstrained by traditional, discipline-bound thinking.Bio-X Fellowships encourage innovation by providing tuition and stipend to promising graduate students for up to three years while they pursue interdisciplinary research projects. This highly competitive program supports 30 fellows at a time from around the university—working to bridge gaps between biology and other disciplines, such as physics, engineering, computer science, and chemistry. One example is David Myung, who took time from his medical degree program to work with a group in Chemical Engineering, synthesizing new hydrogels to develop an artificial cornea. This research is an excellent example of the new science made possible by a student fluently bridging engineering and medicine.

Through a new Bio-X Ventures program, Bio-X also incubates exceptional research programs that rely on large-scale, interdisciplinary collaborations beyond the scope of the modest seed grants funded by the Interdisciplinary Initiative Program. New incentives and greater investments enable larger groups of Stanford faculty to collaborate, invent, and explore new fields and technologies. Bio-X Ventures also supports Bio-X Innovation Labs, providing space and resources for the rapid development and dissemination of new technologies well before they are available as “off-the-shelf” equipment.

The first Bio-X Venture, called Bio-X NeuroVentures, is a university-wide research initiative that incubates exceptionally creative ideas having potential for unlocking the secrets of the brain. With the support of NeuroVentures, researchers are working to advance the new field of optogenetics, invented by Professor Karl Deisseroth, which combines light and genetics to turn on or turn off specific cells in the body. Optogenetics technology will enable scientists to understand previously uncharted areas of the brain and allow them to renew cells, tissues, and even organs that were disabled by injury or disease. Other areas of interest include imaging and stimulating the human brain, the study of human decision-making, and deciphering the neural code. Bio-X NeuroVentures also fosters "conversations" between faculty from multiple fields to identify particularly promising new approaches to interdisciplinary brain research. Bio-X NeuroVentures will permit researchers to pursue rapidly the most promising of these new approaches.


View of the Clark Center courtyard following a Bio-X seed grants symposium in August 2010. There were over 200 attendees, eight talks by awardees, and approximately 100 posters presented by students.

The James H. Clark Center, completed in 2003, serves as the hub for Bio-X. Situated both symbolically and physically at the crossroads leading to the School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics, the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the School of Engineering, and the School of Humanities and Sciences, the Clark Center features flexible laboratory spaces and shared equipment that encourage unprec­edented levels of collaboration among researchers from an extraordinary array of disciplines. The center was explicitly designed to encourage serendipitous encounters among faculty and graduate students that can lead to totally new collabora­tions that revolutionize our understanding of human biology in health and disease.