When Sandy Bernstein arrived at San Diego State University in 1983 to study muscle function and disease, you could see from one end of his molecular biology lab to the other in a glance.
There were no Ph.D. programs offered in his area of molecular or cell biology and most faculty members weren’t bringing in research grants. At that time, he received about $200,000 in research funding each year.
Flash forward to 2010. Bernstein’s lab space has doubled and his equipment is state-of-the-art. His lab has a staff of 15, including two doctoral students, two post-docs and several undergraduates. This year, he secured nearly a million dollars in funding, including support from the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
It’s a fact that research on Montezuma Mesa has become a campuswide endeavor, ingrained in the everyday academic pursuits of SDSU students, faculty and staff.
Take the example of Raul Ramos, who transferred to SDSU in 2009 to study biology and human genetics. Ramos never thought he would see the inside of a lab until he began graduate school. Now he’s one of the undergraduates working with Sandy Bernstein.
Students play a significant role in SDSU's expanding research enterprise.
"I’m amazed by the amount of research going on at SDSU and I didn’t see that before coming here," said Ramos, a senior who is one of ten SDSU students to receive the Minority Access to Research Careers grant funded by the National Institutes of Health.
SDSU has always held true to its early mission of educating undergraduate students, dated to its beginnings as a teacher training college in 1897. Bernstein said that some of his colleagues were initially fearful that expanding research activities would negatively affect the teaching mission of the university.
In the past 20 years, however, the administration and faculty have recognized that faculty-led research not only enriches student education, but is an essential element of student learning. Accordingly, SDSU has expanded its research activities, attracting $150 million in research grants and contracts in 2009-10.
"The best education we can give to all our students—including future scientists—is to have them actively participate in research," said SDSU President Stephen L. Weber. "Research keeps our faculty sharp and current in their field and provides excellent learning environments for our students."
SDSU research enterprise
A boost to SDSU’s already thriving research program came in 2006, when the SDSU BioScience Center opened as the first dedicated research building at San Diego State. In the last year, BioScience Center researchers received nearly $5 million in grants and contracts—including nearly $3 million from the National Institutes of Health—to examine the connections between infection, inflammation and heart disease.
With its contemporary architecture and four stories of well-equipped labs, the center symbolizes the steep upward trajectory of the SDSU research enterprise.
The best education we can give to all our students
—including future scientists—
is to have them actively participate in research.
"The BioScience Center serves as a hub to facilitate research partnerships across campus," said Dr. Roberta Gottlieb, the center’s director and Frederick G. Henry Chair in Life Sciences. "One of the great things about SDSU, and what makes it unique, is the spirit of collaboration. Since the BioScience Center opened, these collaborations have led to new grant submissions and new ideas that are fundable."
The acceleration of research has brought more than international acclaim for individual professors. The collective research enterprise has led to the recognition of SDSU as the No. 1 most productive research university among schools with 14 or fewer Ph.D. programs*.
SDSU has earned this distinction for the past four years, but has now grown beyond the "small research university" category. As the university brings on two additional Ph.D. programs in evolutionary biology and geophysics this fall and three additional engineering programs in the near future, it will be competing for recognition among the top research universities in the country, including many far larger institutions.
Joy Phillips is one of five immunologists working in the Donald P. Shiley Center for Cardiovascular Research on the third floor of SDSU's BioScience Center.
"SDSU’s faculty are increasingly committed to original scholarship in addition to our traditional roles as teachers, and the administration has nurtured this development, even in times of financial stress," said Tom Scott, vice president for research and graduate dean.
"All segments of the university benefit as we compete for external funding, use that funding to provide leading-edge facilities and hire faculty who stand out among their professional peers worldwide," Scott said.
It’s not just "lab coat research" that SDSU has come to be known for. Research in public health, education, kinesiology, media studies and earthquake science distinguish the university’s portfolio in equal measure to research in the life sciences.
Gottlieb also credits the instrumental work of the SDSU Research Foundation, a university auxiliary that manages research grants and contracts, helps identify funding sources and assists professors with proposal development and submissions.
From discovery to product pipeline
So what’s next for SDSU research? Gottlieb sees momentum building toward a new collaboration between the BioScience Center and SDSU’s nationally recognized College of Business Administration to help the university take its research to the next level.
"Discoveries made by students and faculty need to result in more than publications in scientific journals," Gottlieb said.
"Next, we want to help turn discoveries here on campus into products like vaccines, drugs and diagnostics," Gottlieb said. "The university has such a good business school it seems natural to utilize that strength and put it to work moving science into the marketplace.
"Business students and professors can provide advice, guidance and expertise earlier in the research process—helping to get discoveries into the product pipeline and building an entrepreneurial enterprise on campus."* Fundamental data provided by Academic Analytics LLC