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Exceeding (Even Our) Expectations

Goals help us aspire, reach further, and do more. But don’t just say them to yourself—write them down, like George Mason University officials did in 2014. That’s when they listed joining the elite group of U.S. universities doing research at the highest level as a prime goal in the university’s 10-year strategic plan.

Frank Krueger (at right), is chief of the Social Cognition and Interaction: Functional Imaging (SCIFI) Lab and co-director of the Center for the Study of Neuroeconomics at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Crossing that goal off the list happened so quickly it almost took the university by surprise in February 2016 when the prestigious Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education boosted George Mason to the coveted top-tier “R1” status.

But, really, there’s been lots of time to prepare.

About 20 years ago, Mason thoughtfully began building a research portfolio that ranged from public policy to the physical sciences. Mason’s total research expenditures were nearly $27 million in 1995, increasing to about $65 million in 2005, and jumping to $101 million in 2016. The university is setting its sights high and aiming for $250 million by 2022.

Mason research is changing lives. Faculty and students are developing innovative precision medicine approaches to pinpoint effective treatments for breast cancer patients, creating a fuller understanding of how the mind works, developing new algorithms to secure cyberspace, improving the efficacy of climate models, identifying strategies to thwart and disrupt transnational criminal organizations, and exploring new approaches to diplomacy and foreign policy. They’ve landed a few awards along the way, notably two Nobel Prizes in Economic Sciences—James M. Buchanan in 1986, and Vernon L. Smith in 2002.

“Mason is taking on the next set of research challenges facing society,” says Mason Provost S. David Wu. “Our depth and breadth of research expertise creates opportunities for multidisciplinary research to find fresh answers to pressing problems ranging from precision medicine to cybersecurity.”

The university brought Deborah Crawford and Sean Mallon on board in spring 2016 to help Mason reach its new goals for research and innovation.

Deborah Crawford

As Mason’s vice president for research, Crawford brings extensive experience from the federal, university, and nonprofit sectors, notably the National Science Foundation and the International Computer Science Institute, an independent research institution affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. She has led the development of numerous multidisciplinary research initiatives with significant ties to corporate, nonprofit, and public service partners who help make research outcomes truly impactful.

A noted venture capitalist with more than 20 years of investment and startup experience, Mallon is the university’s first associate vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation. Mallon will draw upon his experience as senior investment director for the CIT GAP Fund, a seed- and early-stage technology venture fund within the Center for Innovative Technology, to guide Mason’s work to move research from the lab into products and services that benefit society.

Sean Mallon

Crawford and Mallon are working with a strong portfolio. Mason’s accomplishments are a tribute to leaders and faculty from across the university who worked together to create the momentum we see today, says University Professor Peter Stearns, Mason provost from 2000 to 2014 and an esteemed historian.

Founded in 1990, the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study has been a standard bearer for research into the inner workings of the brain and served as one of the academy’s forerunners for the White House Brain Initiative. Krasnow brings together faculty from multiple disciplines—including bioengineering, chemistry, neuroscience, and psychology—and houses wet labs and state-of-the-art research instruments that allow Mason researchers to work on cracking the code to how our minds work.

Mason’s Science and Technology Campus (formerly the Prince William Campus) opened in 1997 in Manassas, Virginia, and helped kick-start the university’s rapid rise in research productivity. The campus anchors Innovation Park, a 1,600-acre research and development public-private venture, and is a place of boundless innovation.

Mason’s Biomedical Research Lab is one of only 13 regional biocontainment laboratories nationwide funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a unit of the National Institutes of Health, and it offers state-of-the-art laboratory capabilities to study infectious disease. The Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, also located on the Science and Technology Campus, uses creative new precision medicine strategies to identify new treatments and develop novel diagnostic tests. Mason researchers also are studying the human microbiome, unique ecosystems of microbes that influence and determine the health and well-being of all individuals.

The university’s ongoing partnership with the Inova Health System became stronger still in December 2015 when the two announced plans to collaborate on personalized medicine. This new partnership lies at the heart of Mason’s newest research initiative, the Institute for Biomedical Innovation (IBI), which will advance basic and translational research and innovation in biomedical and health sciences, engineering, and public policy disciplines.

IBI allows Mason to play a much more significant role in driving growth in Virginia’s bio- and health sciences economies. IBI research will take place in numerous places: in several new wet lab facilities on the Science and Technology Campus, at the Krasnow Institute, in the brand-new Peterson Family Health Sciences Hall on the Fairfax Campus, at Inova sites throughout the region, and at clinical partner sites around the country.

While basic research is essential to establishing new directions in science, engineering, and public policy, moving discoveries from the university environment and into the hands of clinical, corporate, and not-for-profit practitioners as quickly as possible is also a priority, Crawford says. That’s where Mason’s deep commitment to translational research and innovation truly comes into play.

“The IBI is unique because an eye toward entrepreneurship and creating companies is part of the plan from the start,” Mallon says. “We’ll be able to see commercial potential unfold as research progresses in the lab.”

Mason research can give hope to patients and their families, says President Ángel Cabrera.

“Mason researchers are tackling some of the most daunting problems today while teaching the next generation of scientists and leaders,” Cabrera says. “Sharing what we discover is an essential part of our mission to change lives through education, economic opportunities, and research of consequence.”

A worthy goal.