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Harvard biologist Joan Ruderman has been named the new president and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, a world-renowned center for international research and education in biology, biomedicine and environmental science located in Woods Hole, Mass. This is the first time a woman has led the institution, which was founded almost 125 years ago in part to educate women in biology. 

The laboratory offers graduate students, post-docs and professors a range of advanced courses in everything from molecular evolution to computational biology. It also hosts year-round research programs in several different fields, most notably in biophysics, neurobiology and cell and molecular developmental biology, and it is home to one of the most renowned centers for studying ecosystems in the world. It is perhaps most famous for its visiting research program that allows scientists from around the world to collaborate and conduct research. While labs are open year-round, visiting research usually takes place in the summer months when, as Ruderman put it, "the place just explodes."

Since 2010, the laboratory has partnered with the University through a PhD program that pairs Brown graduate students with laboratory scientists who have joint appointments on the Brown faculty.

In her new position as the institute's director, Ruderman pinpointed two important goals: to keep strengthening and building on successful existing programs in both research and education and to grow the Brown-MBL partnership. Twenty MBL scientists and five Brown scientists currently hold joint appointments at Brown and MBL through the Brown-MBL Partnership and Graduate Program, which presently enrolls 21 PhD students and has already graduated six. Ruderman hopes to increase the number of students substantially "so there is a critical mass of students working here at the MBL." 

To increase the number of students in the Brown-MBL Partnership and Graduate Program, expanding funding is a top priority, Ruderman said, along with developing more creative ways for Brown students to become involved at the center. Ruderman said she hopes to bring to the center an academic offering that she taught at Harvard Medical School: short, intensive courses called quarter courses and nano courses. Two quarter courses or six nano courses are worth one semester of credit, allowing students to take several over time and accumulate credit as they go along. These courses focus on particular topics - like gene therapy or stem cells - and provide thorough education with a manageable time commitment. 

"Something like this will work very well for Brown students who might want to come to the MBL but not commit to a whole semester. ... They allow for more flexibility and for faculty to develop courses on the leading edge of an emerging field," Ruderman explained. While the Brown-MBL partnership is focused on opportunities for graduate students, there is a "Semester in Environmental Science" program for undergraduates, and they will be starting to offer January "boot camp style" courses for Brown undergraduates at the MBL as well, she said.  

Ruderman's affiliation with the laboratory began almost four decades ago, when she was a student of the institution's famous embryology course in 1974. "It changed my life," Ruderman said of the intense, 10-week course in developmental biology. 

"In it I discovered one of the experimental systems that I would spend many years working on - the eggs of the clam," she said. After taking the course, Ruderman returned first to  teach, and then co-direct it for several years. She also spent about 20 summers at the MLB conducting her own research and has served on the Board of Trustees since 1986.

"I'm personally interested in the MBL having a larger presence in various aspects of the environmental sciences," she said. While the institute is already strong in the ecosystem arena, it is not conducting as much research at the cellular or developmental level. "This is a new emerging area that people have only begun to think about in the last 10 years or so," Ruderman said. Understanding how exposure to certain environmental contaminants at an early stage of development might have consequences later in life is becoming a more high-profile question of much interest, and organizations like the National Institutes of Health have expressed interest in funding research in this area, she said.


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