Inside Salk; Salk Insitute
Home > News & Press > InsideSalk > 12|15 Issue > An exit interview with Bill Brody

An exit interview with Bill Brody

Bill Brody

As Bill Brody prepares to step down as president after six years of leading the Salk Institute, he shares his perspective on the Institute, science and what it's like to play piano with the San Diego Symphony.

When Bill Brody retires as president of the Salk Institute at the end of December 2015, it will mark the close of a fruitful chapter for the Institute and the beginning of a new era. An acclaimed physician- scientist entrepreneur and university leader, Brody joined Salk in 2009 after serving 12 years as president of Johns Hopkins University. During Brody's six years of leadership at Salk, he navigated the Institute through challenging waters, weathering a global financial crisis while launching Salk's first major fundraising campaign. The Campaign for Salk significantly boosted the Institute's outreach efforts to raise its profile and attract private philanthropic support. This included a number of new public events, including the Salk Science & Music Series, Brody's brainchild and an offshoot of his classical piano training.

As Brody steps down as president this month, the campaign comes to a close, having exceeded the goal of raising $300 million and more than doubling the Institute's endowment from $132 million in 2009 to $356 million in 2015—laying a financial foundation critical to long-term stability and flexibility.

Bill Brody and Irwin Jacobs, chairman of Salk's Board of Trustees

In addition to shoring up its financial footing, the Institute has boasted a run of scientific successes during Brody's tenure, including recruiting a new cadre of highly sought-after faculty and expanding its research facilities, outfitting them with the most cutting-edge scientific technologies. Most important of all, Salk's scientists continue to produce a steady stream of remarkable scientific discoveries that are changing how we see the world and how we tackle the many challenges facing humanity, from climate change to Alzheimer's disease to cancer.

What do you see as the best opportunities for the Salk Institute?

We have so many opportunities—too many, really. We're living in a renaissance of biomedical science. People say this is the 'era of stem cells' or 'neuroscience' or 'cancer.' And that's all true. One challenge at Salk is all the technologies we have to deal with. We are the Salk Institute for Biological Studies—not technological studies—but it's critically important that we invest in technology. Technology is really driving the science now. Another promising trend I've seen at Salk is the merging of basic and translational research. It used to be that someone who discovered a fundamental biological mechanism would rely on pharmaceutical companies to turn the discovery into a drug. The problem is that there is traditionally a gap between discovery science and translational science—really promising ideas can fall into this gap and never emerge. A number of Salk scientists are now conducting the initial translational experiments based on their previous discoveries, looking for specific drug targets and even developing initial drug candidates. It's exciting, because it means the people who have the deepest understanding of the biology are getting more involved in making sure the knowledge helps people.

What are the biggest challenges for the Institute?

I think we're in really good shape. We've had a wonderful fundraising campaign and we exceeded our goal. But funding is still scarce. Finding support for the research is key to the long-term success of Salk. That isn't going to change. And it shouldn't change. We need to have people who are hungry and can compete for grants. In applying for grants, the science gets honed. You see, here at Salk, we play a high-risk game called science. We ask people to take these crazysounding ideas and see if they're real or not. It often takes the establishment a number of years to realize that what Salk scientists have found is true. To our credit, although we work with a small staff, these people are always willing to go the extra mile. So we must be efficient, effective and hungry.

Is that what makes Salk "Salk"—the people?

Robert Redford and Bill Brody at Salk's June 2014 premiere of Redford's film Cathedrals of Culture

You can have all the money in the world, and it's still the people that make an organization. The very best thing about Salk is the people. They are the secret sauce. We are not a large organization so we don't have a lot of reserves nor a deep bench. While a big organization can tolerate a certain amount of mediocrity, there's simply no room for it at Salk. We have to have the highest quality people—and we do. It's imperative that we keep making investments in quality faculty and staff.

You've had a long and fascinating career. You were a surgeon, inventor and head of one of the world's great universities. Did you learn anything new over the past six years in La Jolla?

When I was a medical student at Stanford and also enrolled in the PhD program in electrical engineering, I took the biochemistry course taught by Nobel laureates Arthur Kornberg and Paul Berg (the latter having been previously a scientist at Salk) and became so intrigued with biochemistry and the emerging field of molecular biology, I almost changed my major to biochemistry. It was probably a good thing I didn't, but when I was invited to come to the Salk Institute I viewed it as an opportunity to learn about modern molecular biology. I have been a voyeur watching some of the world's most amazing discoveries unfold before my eyes.

What are the three most important things you would tell the next president of the Institute?

Continue to recruit the best and brightest minds to the Salk Institute. Expand our reach to more individuals and foundations that can support Salk research in the face of scarce government research funds. Keep the Institute lean and effective.

For Symphony at Salk 2014 you played piano on stage with the San Diego Symphony. Were you nervous?

Bill Brody and Maestro Thomas Wilkins

No, of course not, how could I be nervous… the night before the event, I slept like a baby…waking up screaming every two hours! I had never played with a symphony before, so it was a high-risk endeavor. I told Maestro Thomas Wilkins that if I failed, people would say, 'Well, what do you expect? He's a scientist not a musician. But what was Maestro Wilkins thinking when he decided to have Dr. Brody perform with the Symphony?'

What are you going to do in retirement?

Less! That's the short answer to that question. I love playing the piano, so I'll probably spend more time practicing and playing for fun. I also mentor younger people in academia and in small companies, something that is very enjoyable. I look forward to maintaining a presence at Salk; a piece of my heart is here. It's been a real privilege to work at the Institute, to be greeted each morning by incomparably talented people. It's a superb organization.

Now, it's time to pass the baton. The next president will come up with new ideas, install new ways, bring a new energy. There's a buzz about Salk among researchers that Salk is a great place to be. And it is!