Chris Bradfield, professor at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, has recently started a year-long appointment as the interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. We sat down with him to talk about his vision for the WID and the experiences that have prepared him for his new role.
Congratulations on your appointment as the interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. What are you most looking forward to?
I am looking forward to interacting with the scientists here at the WID. There are a lot of talented people here, and it’s exciting to meet researchers from very diverse fields and understand how they work together and how they use their differences to drive innovation.
My first objective is to get to know everyone who works here. I have now met all the theme leaders, all of the primary theme members, most of the Discovery Fellows, and all the staff. I would like to meet all the students, post docs and scientists as well, to get a complete sense of the institute. If there is someone in WID I haven’t met, I will soon be scheduling a time to meet.
What would you say are some of the bigger challenges facing the WID?
The WID was built on the idea that scientific collisions between unique disciplines can drive innovation. Basic principles of chemistry teach us that for these collisions to be productive they must be frequent, have energy and proper orientation. Therefore, we must think harder about how to reduce barriers to interaction, how to bring different scientific teams together more often and how we can provide the proper resources to facilitate achievement.
Over the next few months, I can see spending a lot of energy trying to increase cross-discipline interactions. In addition, I would like to learn how I can help build an endowment that can generate funds to help drive novel interactions, new directions, and move science along faster. I don’t want to overstate the financial side of things; people interacting and working together in new ways are the most important keys to our success. Yet, administratively, engaging philanthropy should be a primary goal for leadership at WID, especially if we want to see our science improve people’s lives, but also see that improvement in our lifetime.
Are there any specific things you are looking to change or maintain during your tenure?
One thing to realize is that I am an interim director and have signed on for a year while we establish a national search for the permanent leader of WID. My main objectives right now are to keep WID’s mission rolling in a positive direction, and working towards creating even more cross-theme interactions. Maybe one of the most difficult challenges is to find ways to get people talking even more. Everyone is so busy, carving out time for novel interactions will require creativity and new models of communication. Perhaps, more impromptu idea sessions, more invitations to folks from outside who can stimulate new approaches, or simply more cross-discipline brainstorming to solve problems that face the people of our state.
How do you think your extensive previous administrative experiences (as the director of the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center and the Office of Graduate Support for the UW School of Medicine and Public Health) will help you?
You learn a lot from these experiences. For me, the main thing is to try and build consensus when you can. As the director, you try to guide, and make the difficult choices, but make sure you listen to identify attainable goals, learn what is working, and where people want to go. You can’t just make new org-charts or repaint. I would like to figure out what people want, what they are currently doing, what they think they can accomplish and how I can help them get there. Just getting people to talk and think about the direction they want WID to head is vital in my mind.
What can you tell us about your leadership style?
In one word: listening. I try to build consensus when I can. People may worry about whether you can lead effectively that way, but I think you are more prone for success when a variety of perspectives are first voiced and respected. That way, even if people disagree, they know why choices were made and are more likely to help. There is so much I don’t know. The only way I can help is by listening, gathering the information, and then choosing the best path forward. That’s the scientist in me.
Where would you like WID to be in a year?
Any way I can, I’d like to increase the collisions between scientists within WID. Any way we could make mathematicians talk more to biologists, engineers talk more to computer scientists will be a huge accomplishment. That’s what I would like to figure out, how to get people to communicate more across disciplines. This includes getting more communication between WID and the Morgridge Institute for Research. The real metric of success will be in the quality of the scientific accomplishment arising from these interactions.