The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is where Gerald Joyce says he “learned to be a scientist” while completing his graduate and postdoctoral research training, prior to launching his independent research program in the late 1980s.
“I’m a Salkie, as we like to say,” he said.
After the Salkie left the institute to pursue other career opportunities, including serving as dean of the faculty at The Scripps Research Institute and director of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, he returned to Salk to run a research lab in 2017 and has served as the institute’s senior vice president and chief science officer since July.
Beginning April 21, Joyce will serve Salk in a new role – leading the institute as president.
“I am deeply honored to take on this role at what is an auspicious time for the Institute,” Joyce said. “With our incredibly talented team of scientists and administrators, we will continue to be a world leader in making high-impact scientific discoveries and forging new pathways for innovation across the biological sciences.”
Salk made the announcement on Feb. 16 that Joyce was chosen to succeed current president Rusty Gage following a six-month search process. Gage will return to his lab full-time following what colleagues describe as a transformative leadership tenure that strengthened the Institute scientifically, culturally and organizationally.
“As we consider the legacy of Rusty’s presidency, perhaps the most indelible mark will be his remarkable success in fostering a much more unified, collaborative and inclusive community within our campus—having established Salk’s first Office of Equity and Inclusion, facilitated greater partnership and trust between faculty and administration, and, of course, helped to deftly steer the Institute through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Marna C. Whittington, chair of Salk’s Board of Trustees.
“Taking over now post-Rusty is such a joy because of all he accomplished,” Joyce said.
Gage described five-year tenure leading Salk as “an honor and privilege to be part of a journey of tremendous growth, evolution and progress” as the institute “worked to be faithful stewards of a mission focused on bringing out the best in science and each other.”
“As I pass the baton, I have every confidence that our momentum will continue and, indeed, build under the extremely capable leadership of Jerry Joyce, whose multitude of professional accomplishments are only eclipsed by the magnitude of his personal character,” he added.
Joyce said he plans to bring to Salk the “two sides” of his experience – researcher and medical scientist with drug discovery experience.
“I’m a basic scientist born and bred at the Salk Institute, but I am also a licensed physician with medical training who knows how to do preclinical drug discovery. I think that’s a good combination for Salk,” he said, and pointed to his work leading the research institute at Novartis, during which time his team “brought 14 compounds into human clinical trials and received three FDA approvals.”
Joyce also pointed out that Salk is “important” in the research institute space because it can invest in fundamental science, while other San Diego life science institute’s focus more on translational research.
“What I can bring to the Salk is understanding both sides of that – those two different worlds,” he said. “The trend in academia in the last decade is to be more translational and do an academic version of drug discovery. But there’s also a real hunger for academia to do what academia does best, which is tell us where to go next not how to move the ball the next step on the current path.”
Joyce takes over Salk at an exciting time. The institute is currently amid a seven-year, $750 million comprehensive capital campaign that includes the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for Science and Technology – a new building that will allow Salk’s faculty to grow from its current 50 researchers to somewhere in the low 60s.
“We’re bringing in three new faculty this year,” Joyce said, adding that his role will be to lead the faculty to collectively decide what areas of research Salk should explore next and then marshalling the resources to execute. “That’s basically the president’s job.”
The process of collectively deciding where to go is already underway at Salk. Last spring into summer, Joyce as CSO and other faculty members mapped out six key initiatives the institute will focus on in the coming years, including specific directions in cancer, aging, neuroscience, immunobiology, computational biology and plant biology research.
The plant biology area is one that Joyce is especially excited about because of its rare inclusion of a commercial aspect to the research. Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative is a program funded with $70 million from the Bezos Earth Fund and the TED Audacious Project that is developing genetically engineered plants to have deeper roots that will sequester more carbon in the ground. Last September, the project produced a “unicorn” for Salk – a commercial company named Cquesta. The goal of the company is to scale the science to “commercial scale.”
“And by commercial scale we mean gigaton per annum burial of carbon, enough to really change the game and get the planet back to carbon balance,” Joyce said.
Another project Joyce is excited about is Salk’s biocomputation initiative, which he described as “technology that we can lay across the whole institute that’s going to benefit everybody and one that we can use our nimbleness to keep advancing.”
Salk’s “next level biocomputation” will include AI machine learning and “partner with the Google’s of the world for not just data storage in the cloud but computation in the cloud,” Joyce said.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
President: Rusty Gage, Ph.D.
Headquarters: La Jolla
Business: Research institute
Notable: Since its inception, six Salk Institute researchers have been awarded the Nobel Prize.