The Power of Collaboration
Ryan Institute Co-Directors John Robinson and William Van Nostrand team up on a shared passion for the future of the Ryan Institute.
William Van Nostrand and John Robinson’s ongoing research collaboration began at Stony Brook University more than 15 years ago, thanks to a chance meeting in a park. In 2017, they moved their research programs to the Ryan Institute, joining forces with inaugural executive director Paula Grammas to help build something special at URI: a research institute focused on finding treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. With Tom Ryan’s $24 million gift to the Institute last fall (part of a milestone $35 million gift to URI) and the Institute positioned for the next phase in its development, Grammas was ready to pass the baton––and Van Nostrand and Robinson took on a new role as co-directors, building on the Institute’s strong foundation and momentum to date.
Together they have collaborated on numerous grants and research publications, but their new roles give them a chance to combine their expertise in the area that has become an increasing passion over the past three years: to drive the Institute’s mission forward and leverage the great strengths of the URI neuroscience community.
What first attracted you to the Ryan Institute?
Bill: I came up here to visit Paula [Grammas] and give a talk, and I liked what I saw, the energy and the focus on neurodegenerative disease research. At Stony Brook University, there was a strong neuroscience community, but we didn’t have that concerted effort and focus on neurodegenerative disease. Paula asked if I would consider looking into a position here. I hadn’t been looking to leave Stony Brook, but that focus and the vision for the Institute strongly appealed to me. As I spent more time considering the move, my thoughts went to John and how he would be a perfect fit for the Institute because he had an expertise that was missing and necessary for the Institute to excel and grow.
John: I wasn’t looking to make a late career move either. But as I talked to Bill and Paula, I got excited about the opportunity here. For me, the Ryan Institute was attractive because I love being part of a research community, and I also love teaching. I felt that the Ryan Institute and URI would allow for a great application of both of my skill sets. It was also clear that the Institute could play a role in expanding neuroscience and building community at URI, and I was excited about that as well.
Bill: I really liked Rhode Island too.
John: It’s a really nice environment and place to live.
As the Institute moves out of startup mode, what excites you about where we are and where we’re headed?
Bill: When I arrived, we were focused with Paula on building something new. Now we have several new faculty with us, whose careers are just getting started. You can see things growing and becoming very productive, and it’s exciting to see the potential here.
John: I completely agree. We’ve discerned what our strengths are and where to put our efforts. As new faculty have come on board, and as we’ve reached out and worked with other colleges and programs, it’s become even clearer how we can grow and what we can work toward.
What makes URI a good place for neuroscience?
John: The community here creates a whole range of possibilities for collaboration. For example, Bill and I are developing a project with [Assistant Professor] Manshu Yang in Psychology and [Associate Dean of Health Sciences] Deb Riebe, tapping into their extensive expertise in methodology and translational work. It shows how you can put together a truly multidisciplinary team to work on something unique. That’s due to the environment at URI. The Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program is another important piece—we not only have the advantage of connecting with other faculty, but there are opportunities to work with graduate students and undergrads from a range of disciplines.
Bill: That type of collaboration isn’t always common, especially at larger universities. At Stony Brook, we had the medical campus on one side of the street, the main campus on the other. I had colleagues that I would run into at an international conference but never on campus. John and I were there for ten years, both working on Alzheimer’s disease research, before we ever met each other.
John: Here’s how we met. I was taking a walk in my neighborhood, and I crossed paths with a woman and her father—she and I started chatting and discovered we both worked on Alzheimer’s research. She turned out to be Judianne [Davis, Bill’s lab manager.] When she found out I was a behavioral neuroscientist, she said, “We need that in our lab!” and thought we could collaborate. Bill and I had been on campus for ten years, working a quarter mile away from each other, and we’d never met each other. That wouldn’t happen at URI.
Bill: It’s also unique to have such an engaged donor [in Tom Ryan, who founded the Institute with his wife, Cathy] behind the Institute. It creates a personal connection to the mission, and I think that also contributes to a sense of community.
John: The names of Tom’s parents are the name of the Institute. When someone’s family makes that kind of commitment, you have an esprit de corps that doesn’t always exist elsewhere. I think we all feel a very strong loyalty to the Ryans’ vision.
On a related note, this pandemic is bringing attention to the importance of supporting scientific research. What do you hope people will understand about disease research and how they can help it advance?
Bill: What’s happening right now underscores why science is so important. You don’t turn it on and off with a switch. That infrastructure needs to be there, happening all the time. Research is a constant push. You need the resources and time to make progress, even when that disease is not on the front burner of public awareness.
John: Scientific research is a huge investment. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming. It can be frustrating. Right now, it’s on full view how difficult it is to answer scientific questions such as how something spreads, how it will mutate. There are a tremendous number of questions constantly evolving. Dead ends happen. That is a necessary part of the process. But once you’ve answered a scientific question, it’s forever.
What keeps you both motivated when you meet dead ends or the work moves slowly?
John: It’s important in moments of adversity to be part of a community that supports each other. It’s rewarding to work with our colleagues and students. You’re always learning, and that’s the enjoyable part.
Bill: We have a strong drive to understand what we’re studying. It’s definitely not a career for everybody—it’s 90 percent failure. Some people can’t handle that. But you learn and move on. You need conviction to keep pushing until you break through. As John said, collaboration also is important. That’s the fun part of work. It’s stimulating to have good conversations that get you thinking in new ways. Instead of focusing on the failure and negativity, you see possibilities. You see that the sky is the limit.
Ryan Institute Co-Director William Van Nostrand is Hermann Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. His work focuses on the pathogenesis of vascular-mediated aspects of cognitive impairment and dementia. Co-Director John Robinson is Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. He specializes in the use of rodents as models to understand human central nervous system function and dysfunction.
Their collaborations together include an emphasis on lifestyle factors, such as the role of exercise, in preventing and slowing the progression of neurodegenerative disease.
Photo credits: John Robinson/James P. Jones, William Van Nostrand/Kathleen Dooher