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The Huck tackles humanity's pressing questions

by on December 05, 2018 3:15 PM

“You’ll excuse us if we geek out for a moment?” Peter Hudson asks with a chuckle as he brings up an interesting point – which he does quiet often – as he sits with his longtime friend and colleague Andrew Read. The pair of science leaders take a moment to explore each other’s thoughts.

Each man is a brilliant thinker, and it is fascinating to watch their brains play off each other. One can see the excitement in their eyes, and it is as if each cannot help but be inspired by the way the other thinks about the problems of the world. And, make no mistake about it, this is what they are doing: looking to solve the problems facing humanity through science. 

This it is just the type of atmosphere that Hudson has created for the past 12 years as the director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State, a place that encourages collaboration and communication between the many different schools of science there, enabling the Huck and Penn State to become among the top life science research institutions in the country. 

As Hudson, a professor of biology, gets ready to hand the reigns of this dynamic organization over to Read in January, it is plain to see they are kindred spirits. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Hudson brought Read, a world-renowned leader in the field of infectious disease, to central Pennsylvania to be an integral part of his team.

The Huck: No boundaries

The work of the Huck Institutes includes cancer research, micro-biotical research, metabolomics research, genomics, and many other things that a layperson might not easily understand. Huck scientists are working to prevent diseases in humans, animals, and plants, working to improve crop yields, working to understand how each body responds differently to medications, and what is happening to the bee population, among many other things.

If you are familiar with the Penn State campus, than surely you know the Millennium Science Complex, with its lovely courtyard, interesting L-shaped design, and a raised area under which pedestrians can pass. Nearby, on the Shortlidge Road walkway, sits the Life Science building. In these buildings, among others, are the labs and offices of some of the most brilliant science minds around.

The Huck Institutes is named in honor of Lloyd and Dottie Huck, Penn State alumni, community leaders, and generous benefactors of the life sciences. The Huck is difficult to define because it connects researchers from across scientific fields, something that Read believes is unlike any other place, something that is pushing it forward.

“I looked at leaving Penn State a few years ago, and I looked at great institutions,” Read says. “And they have a lot of fantastically great individuals, as we do. But the difference is the Huck joins those individuals up. Anybody that wants to play with somebody else here ... it makes it possible.

“Conventional universities have vertical structures where they have colleges, and they have deans, and departments and department heads. But science is not vertically arranged, it is this fluid thing that is changing all the time horizontally. The Huck makes that happen in its work.

"So what happens at Penn State, in my head, the institute makes the traditional silo disciplinary boundaries break down, and in many places the Huck has been so successful that it is non-existent – you don’t even notice them when you are a working scientist. And this was happening before, but since Pete came aboard, it just grew even more so.”

Hudson has led Penn State’s growth in research by bringing on good people and starting initiatives and programs in forward-focused science.

“We are trying to push Penn State forward in multiple areas. I feel very strongly in not slowly ratcheting the system, but looking for step functions. What can we do that takes us up significantly, that pushes the intellectual capability of the university? This university is large enough and flexible enough that we can have two of these step functions running at the same time and then when those are settled down, we are on to the next one and pushing those. ... All the time, I think about where is the science going and what is the challenge to the humans? I spend a lot of my time looking five, 10 years out and [asking], what are the exciting sciences?”

Birds of a feather

Hudson and Read received PhDs from Oxford, both were professors at universities in Scotland, both were elected to the Royal Society, and both started their work in the study of birds and animals before researching infectious disease.

Read remembers wondering why the plants, birds, and other animals in New Zealand were so different from the rest of the world. This led him to science. Both are amazed that they are able to make a living studying what they love.

“It wasn’t until I got to the university that I realized that you could get paid to think about that; once I realized that, I was off. Like Pete, I am still slightly shocked,” Read says.

“My mother asked me when my father was dying, 10 years ago, ‘What is it you do for a living?’ She had no idea about research. My father said to me, ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’” Hudson says.

Read's research focuses on the ecology and evolutionary genetics of infectious disease, particularly pathogen evolution-related issues that may harm human health, such as antibiotic and vaccine resistance.

The pair met at Oxford in the mid-1980s, and through time became friends. They worked on a project together in the ’90s on parasites in grouse. Eventually, Hudson was at Edinburgh University and Read was down the road at Sterling University, and they would meet often and give talks at each other’s institutions. 

Hudson eventually came to Penn State and helped make it one of the leaders in the field of infectious disease research, and one of the big steps toward doing that was getting Read on board, along with a team of other leading scientists.

But, first, Read needed to be convinced to settle down across the pond in central Pennsylvania.

While in State College for a meeting, Read was at Mad Mex with Hudson and some other colleagues when the idea of him coming to Penn State was first brought up.

“Needless to say, I needed to stay back and have one of those big margaritas after that,” Read says. But he knew what Hudson was building at the Huck, and he was ready to take the leap across the pond.

“It was clear that this was going to be the place to research infectious disease, as it still is,” he says.

Read hasn’t looked back in the 11 years since arriving here. When Hudson stepped up as director of the Huck, Read took over as the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. He is considered a pioneer in the research of pathogen resistance in response to antibiotics, and vector resistance to pesticides. His work has opened up a new field of inquiry and therapy termed “evolutionary medicine.” This past year, he was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Hudson can’t think of a better person to take charge of the Huck in January.

“It’s really quite simple: He is one of the best scientists I’ve ever known,” Hudson says of Read. “He has the ability to think cleanly and clearly about scientific issues. He is a free-thinking spirit in that way. His ability to get to the core of an issue is just an incredible strength. And, when you can do that in leadership as well as research, it is fabulous. He does everything based on the data and what is available, and does a very clean analysis of it that gets to the heart. I think I have set the Huck up where he can now drive this thing through to an even higher level,” says Hudson.

Breeding a community

The Huck brings together researchers and graduate students from eight different Penn State colleges, 26 research institutes and centers of excellence, 11 core instrumentation facilities, and seven advanced graduate programs. All these fields of science coming together means there is a wealth of information and collaboration.

“Something that is unusual at Penn State – science is a really nasty business, very competitive, [there are] a limited number of Nobel Prizes and limited amount of grant dollars — [is that] people at Penn State, and certainly in the Huck sphere by and large, take pleasure in others’ success,” says Read.

Students come from all over the world to study and research. Graduate student Rimnoma Quedraogo has been researching plant pathology at the university for the past three years. He came to Penn State all the way from Botswana and has found the Huck to be a “dream.”

“It is a dream come true; you are living in a textbook, and keep learning every day,” he says. “At our lab, we work on plant disease and at other labs they are working on animal-related diseases, so you have this cross-relationship. If we were working with just plant pathology, you would just be dealing with people who are working with the same thing you do. Here, you have the possibility to see more than one way and learn something else than what you are dealing with every day. That is collaboration.”

Quedraogo says he recently shared lab space with a researcher who was studying plants from his native country. This interested him and he was able to give context to her work, being from the country, and she was able to teach him some new things about his research.

Hudson believes the Huck shares its sense of community with Penn State and the region that makes up Happy Valley. He sees it, for example, in Mount Nittany Medical Center, which he calls a community hospital.

“When you talk to Kathleen Rhine, who is the CEO out there, that is exactly what she is doing – she is doing it for the community,” Hudson says. “When you go to Kish Bank and you talk to the [CEO] there, Bill Hayes, and you know he’s a banker and my immediate reaction to bankers is not very positive, but then he says, ‘I’ve just got this way of funding single mothers getting mortgages, and we did this, and we built this for the Amish.’ ... He does these things for the community. It is a community bank, and a community hospital, a community university. Wow, that is really something else, isn’t it?”

‘Global domination’

“We have a little saying at the Huck: ‘Nothing less than global domination,’ which is just our way of saying, ‘Let’s build excellence at Penn State,’” says Hudson. He has worked during his time as director to do just that, to have Penn State become one of the leaders in research around the world.

“Pete has always talked about scientific excellence in a global sense. Not the best in central Pennsylvania, not the best in Pennsylvania, not the best in America, but the best in the world,” says Read.

The pair feels that with so much data available these days and the great advancement in technology, the future is limitless. They say the biggest need is for creative minds who can figure out what to do with all that information and technology. And with all the imaginative scientific minds working together through the Huck, Penn State may be at the forefront of that future.

Read says the work that is being done at the Huck reflects an approach that has spread to the whole university. He sees the field of cancer research as a way to use the Huck’s ideals to find a way to eradicate the disease. 

“I do think we have the potential at Penn State to join together pieces in mathematics, engineering, and biology to make the connection with cellular and molecular biology and, more importantly, the oncologists who are seeing patients.”

Hudson sees the work of the Huck in bringing together people from different fields of science as helping to answer some of the most important questions that have plagued mankind since the beginning of time. 

“This is a university where the social sciences are truly outstanding and the life sciences are pretty damn good,” he says. “No other university has brought those together, and if we can bring those together, we can ask some of the most important and pressing questions – the same questions Charles Darwin asked 155 years ago in The Origin of Species. ‘Why do we vary so much and how does this all work?’ That will solve health problems. It will solve multiple problems in human society.”

And, soon, that charge will be left in the good hands of Andrew Read.


Vince Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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