Meet the President
Wearing Khakis, comfortable shoes and toting a modest back-pack, William R. Brody walks up N. Torrey Pines Road at a determined pace, channeling a professor on his way to class. But Brody is not your garden-variety academic. He is the MD-PhD successful inventor-entrepreneur and former Johns Hopkins University president who now leads the Salk Institute.
After more than a dozen years in Maryland, the new Salk president appreciates every chance he gets to soak up San Diego's sunny warmth. Brody either walks or bicycles the three miles from his residence to his office, unless he needs his car for business during the day.
Wendy, his wife of 41 years, shares her husband's active lifestyle. The couple spent a month trekking across New Zealand just prior to arriving in La Jolla. And they set a brisk pace with their dog, a Welsh Corgi named Molly, this spring when they participated with Salk staff members in the March of Dimes' March for Babies in Balboa Park.
The Brodys made an early, lasting impression as Johns Hopkins' "first couple" by donning roller blades and gliding across campus greeting freshmen and parents on their first fall move-in day. "It was a big hit," Brody recalled. "And it sort of set the tone for the presidency."
Subsequently, they welcomed students to campus riding bicycles, Razor-scooters and assorted wheeled conveyances. Once, Brody sought to perform their annual welcoming ritual on horseback, but the Baltimore mounted police declined to cooperate.
At Hopkins, Brody devoted some of his considerable energy to making the campus more pedestrian and jogger-friendly, greening the campus, banishing cars and overall making it less stodgy. "Geography and architecture play an enormous role" for an institution, Brody observed. "Things that allow people to bump into one another and interact on a casual basis are as important as the offices in which they work."
The physical beauty and the opportunities for scientists to interact informally are part of what Brody already deeply admires about the Salk Institute. "Where the real exciting things happen are at a lunch table or in a hallway," he says fervently. "The chance to encounter one another is a very powerful stimulus to creativity."
Even more than the aesthetic appeal of the place, Brody says he is astonished by the exceptional level of collaboration among Salk scientists. When he sits down in the cafeteria or on the patio with a group of graduate students and post-docs, he feels a sense of wonder at the breadth of research interests – even within a single group. "One day I joined six or seven people from Inder Verma's lab," he said. "Most of the researchers talked about their projects on cancer, but a few were probing the causes of depression. Their work across disciplines is surprisingly exhilarating."
So where does the highly accomplished multi-talented executive fit into the powerful Salk leadership picture? "I can help increase the resources we need to be successful, and develop the strategy we need through a planning process that involves eliciting both faculty and external points of view," he suggests.
Brody believes the Salk's toughest challenge is "to combine big science with small science." By that he means making the major investments – in people, space and equipment – to conduct research that keeps the Salk at the top of the world's scientific institutions, while maintaining its collegial intimacy.
On the "big" science side of the equation, Brody explains: "We can buy a microscope. But to do truly innovative, cutting-edge things with imaging and be leaders in the field (like establishing the new Biophotonics Center) we need to recruit a group of people with the backgrounds and skills to really develop the capabilities of the instruments, and to invent new ones. So we need to build a core of imaging technology support, a big investment, without doubling the size of the institute.
"Small science is keeping the Salk at a scale in which you run into people," he continued. "Those chance encounters can be critical to your work."
Addressing the big-small problem requires setting an extremely high bar in hiring, promoting and tenuring only outstanding scientists, Brody said. "There are lots of good violinists, but only a few like Heifetz and Zuckerman. And there are lots of good scientists, but the number of great ones is small. We don't want to get too big and dilute our talent pool. For discovery it is the creative mind you really want. The best institutions have to have a ruthless commitment to excellence."
Brody says part of his responsibility is to support a positive research culture and to make the Salk a lively place to do science. And he must help attract the resources to accomplish all of the institute's goals through both public grants and private philanthropy, including assembling the money for hefty research start-up packages for new faculty, and building a fund supporting the pursuit of high-risk ideas.
While this may seem like a daunting to-do list, Brody says that after his tenure at the sprawling Hopkins, leading the Salk is a real treat. He can concentrate more on science, he is surrounded by an amazing group of vastly creative and innovative people, and he admires California as a uniquely brash and stimulating environment for research (despite its current economic woes). Back East, there is a certain constrained atmosphere to science, he says. "You can have more wild ideas out here, and discovery is about wild ideas, about challenging the status quo, and that's the excitement of California and of the Salk."
While he was clearly comfortable and enormously successful in university settings, Brody admits he feels somewhat liberated by the Salk's discovery-driven focus and structure. In a university, faculty work in individual departments, conducting research in particular disciplines and academic silos, engaging in classroom teaching and/or clinical responsibilities, recruiting graduate students and seeking grants. "In the traditional academic setting, there are built-in constraints that make science harder."
At the Salk, faculty can focus on their science, he says. "You meet people like Greg Lemke, who started out in neuroscience, then shifted into immunology because of discoveries he made. Here you live or die based on your ability to do your research and obtain grants. There's no place to hide at Salk. You are either at the top of your game or you're not going to make it."
Brody elected to move west while at the top of his game. Part of the process of the Brodys' transition from Baltimore to La Jolla involved downsizing. One rather large item reluctantly left behind was a nine-foot concert grand piano, donated to the Peabody Conservatory.
There is a wistful quality to his voice as Brody describes playing the instrument. He is a classically trained pianist who now plays only recreationally: "Mostly jazz, show tunes, some Chopin – it is my form of psychotherapy."
Brody also picks up a guitar on occasion, typically strumming 1960s folk tunes. "Music is good for the soul. It is a form of expression, it is relaxation, and it is a technical challenge. I would love to be able to paint. But I can be creative with music."
The Brodys are Stockton, Calif., natives, so relocating to San Diego is a homecoming of sorts. But Bill Brody says California has changed dramatically and he hardly recognizes the State of his youth. "Stockton was kind of like growing up in Kansas – mostly flat farmland, midway between San Francisco and the mountains," he says.
Wendy and her family moved into Bill's neighborhood, across the street, when she was five years old, and the two families became friends. But Bill and his future spouse were years apart in age and never attended the same schools at the same time. Definitely not childhood sweethearts.
"When I was a senior at MIT, Wendy was a freshman at Mills College. I came home for the Christmas holidays and we went to a movie as friends. Then we decided we'd had a date," he says, smiling. Brody chose Stanford for medical school but then Wendy went off to study in France "so it took a while."
Today they have two grown children, one on each coast. Their son is a Silicon Valley software engineer, and their daughter is in New York, mothering the couple's baby grandchild.
Meanwhile the Brodys are enthusiastically pursuing their latest adventure, adapting to life in Southern California and at the Salk. One more priority item on Bill Brody's list? To raise the institute's profile in San Diego. He wishes the Salk were better appreciated in its home community – that it could be acknowledged as more than just one of several fine institutions on the mesa. (And as though it were timed to support his message, Science Watch recently published a 2009 ranking of American institutions with the highest scientific impact in Neuroscience and Behavior. The Salk ranked No. 1.
Brody vows he will do what he can to increase both local and national respect for a superb organization that does not directly serve patients but has huge impact on human health. "You're a prophet without honor in your hometown," he says. "The farther away you get, the more you realize there's this pillar of excellence, this shining star. It is an extraordinary place."