Business Matters

Dean Peggy Agouris Says Research Partnerships Are Key to Medical Advances, Breakthroughs

Peggy Agouris. Creative Services photo.
Peggy Agouris. Creative Services photo.

By Michele McDonald

As the dean of George Mason University’s College of Science, Peggy Agouris leads a dynamic collection of researchers focused on converting scientific data into actionable knowledge for industry and government.

George Mason’s increased focus on science and engineering research led to the university being named to an elite group of 115 institutions known for performing research at the highest levels, as determined by the prestigious Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

As Virginia’s largest public research university, Mason has made its mark by tackling tough problems in fresh ways and collaborating with high-level partners such as Inova Health Systems. Using technology to advance biomedical research in personalized medicine is a key component of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s report “New Virginia Economy,” and the Inova partnership is a perfect example of that. We talked to Agouris about what these research partnerships mean for Mason students and staff, and the community.

How is Mason rethinking how to solve scientific problems?

We in the College of Science are increasingly focused on external engagement. Generating pragmatic solutions for real-world problems is the central question that informs our approach to developing our academic programs and organizing research initiatives. We are excited about scientific discovery and the potential global impact of those discoveries. Our vision is fixed on the future.

The college hosts a team of world-class investigators at the forefront of redefining cancer treatment. They have invented new technologies here at Mason (all under patent protection) for advanced early diagnostics and novel therapeutic approaches. For example, Mason researchers are developing advanced screening methods for precancerous lesions to understand whether they will develop into cancer and then work to stop them before they do. Scientifically, this is very exciting. But on another level, just think of the potential this research has for saving lives.

How does this research create business opportunities?

As scientists we are keenly aware of the need to partner with entrepreneurs and other business professionals to bring ideas to the market. Mason was founded by risk-takers. That entrepreneurial trait runs strong through our institutional DNA, distinguishing us from other universities and compelling us to seek out new partners and new ventures. We view ourselves as a vital resource within the regional economic ecosystem.

We also view businesses around us as our friends and enablers, not as competition. Sometimes it happens organically, as it did with Ceres Nanoscience and the Lyme disease test. It also happens because major companies are connected with us, such as Booz Allen Hamilton and BAE Systems. We’re lucky to be in an area where we have a lot of companies around us, a lot of eyes on us.

How is Mason using technological advances to further personalized medicine?

The college’s significant strength in the computational and data sciences is the key to advancing personalized medicine, which encompasses everything from drug discovery to health care management.

The second advance is in social media. We can use it to understand human nature and track disease. If you only think of social media as social science, then you miss out on a big part of personalized medicine. By using the human component in social media and the technological advances in big data, we’re becoming leaders in this area of biomedical research.

How is the recent Inova partnership helping Mason develop meaningful research?

Although we do not have a medical school or an affiliated hospital, we bring expertise in bioinformatics and systems biology to this partnership. We complement Inova’s assets (a system of hospitals and clinics) with the computational biology disciplines needed to bring life science breakthroughs directly to patients in the clinical setting. Together, Inova and Mason will pioneer a new model for academic medicine, bring new therapies to the market, and have an impact the economic landscape of Northern Virginia.