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Stem cell researcher to leave the U

The director of the Stem Cell Institute will step down at the end of 2012.


Jonathan Slack, director of the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute, will step down at the end of the calendar year.

For the past five years, Slack has influenced the education and research opportunities at the University. Under his observation, the Institute created more research opportunities with stem cells. A recent initiative his department is heading, funded by an anonymous donor, works with the cells for spinal repair.

Slack broadened stem cell education by creating a graduate program that focuses on stem cells along with a doctoral minor in stem cell science.

He said he enjoys teaching and feels it’s usually not held as important in biomedical fields.

“Teaching allows for an appreciation of obstacles because you have to be able to explain things,” Slack said. “If you can’t explain it to students, you can’t explain it to a board.”

One of the greatest challenges Slack faced during his time at the University was obtaining grants for his research. Like most biological sciences projects, only about 15 percent of grants applied for are funded, he said.

Even though money was tight, Slack said he always had enough to do what he wanted.

Minor technical problems made his research difficult as well. He said he obtained a “psychological robustness” when things did not work out according to his plans.

Tucker LeBien, the Academic Health Center’s associate vice president for research, has worked with Slack for the past two years. He called Slack a “scientist’s scientist.”

“He’s a superb biologist who’s done exceptional research and has a reputation throughout the world,” LeBien said.

Slack has been focusing his studies on regeneration. By studying tadpoles that regenerate their tails after they’ve been cut off, he studied the possibility of similar regeneration in humans. He started his study in his native England but continued while he was in the U.S.

Slack has published four books — his most recent one, published this year, is called “Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction,” which  provides an overview of stem cells. He has published more than 170 research and review papers.

Slack’s achievements show the gaining popularity and knowledge of stem cells. Though they still remain a controversial topic, research in stem cells has slowly become more popular. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who support the research grew from 43 percent to 54 percent from 2002 to 2009. People who say it’s more important to save embryos decreased from 38 percent to 32 percent in the same time period.

Last week, the Stem Cell Institute underwent an external review. The review didn’t assess the quality of individual faculty members but looked at the extra programs to see if they would be able to expand them. Slack hopes they will allow the University to build on the cement base that is already set.

From the U.K. to the U

Slack found his way to Minnesota because he felt becoming the director would be a good opportunity. The University collaborates more than high profile schools on the east and west coasts, Slack said.

“The people [at other research schools] are very competitive and don’t want to talk about their work because they are afraid somebody will steal their idea,” he said.

Before coming to the University in 2007, Slack was the director of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and head of the biology and biochemistry department at the University of Bath.

Slack said the research environment in the United States is very similar to the United Kingdom — although the U.S. has more philanthropic funding.

“American universities have more money,” he said.

He’ll leave for England nine to 10 months after he steps down as director. He’d first like to see through the end of a few of the institute’s projects.

Slack plans to continue teaching and writing when he returns to England, but he won’t be running a lab.

“I’m going back primarily for family reasons,” Slack said. “My wife and I have a grandson now that we didn’t have when we left.”

LeBien said he was sad when Slack announced his departure but glad that he gave plenty of warning to ease the process of finding another director.

The department hasn’t started looking for a successor, but plans will begin within the next few months. If it hasn’t chosen anyone by the Jan. 1, 2013, LeBien said it will select an interim director until a permanent replacement is found.

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