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ASU School of Life Sciences names renowned geneticist Nancy Manley as new director

New ASU School of Life Sciences director Nancy Manley sits at her desk smiling at the camera.

Nancy Manley received her PhD in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has served for 20 years as Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia, where she also served as head of the Department of Genetics. Her research focuses on the thymus — the organ primarily responsible for the creation of T cells, an important component of the immune system.

August 31, 2022

Arizona State University has named Nancy Manley as the new director of the School of Life Sciences. 

A world-renowned geneticist who specializes in the thymus organ and its effect on immunity and aging, Manley says she is excited to act on the promise of swift and innovative change offered by ASU to leverage the range of the School of Life Sciences and guide it to new heights. 

“This is, of course, the thing that is the very favorite of all chairs and directors: future hiring and developing strong research initiatives that really leverage what we have now, and innovate across the breadth of (the school),” she said. “It’s definitely one of the things that attracted me here  that breadth, that scope of life sciences. I would say it’s probably unique in the country for a single unit to have that breadth.”

The School of Life Sciences is a unit of the natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and one of the largest academic units in the university. Founded in 2002 as one of the first interdisciplinary units as a part of ASU President Michael Crow’s New American University, the school has since grown to 6,000 students and 160 faculty collaborating on cutting-edge interdisciplinary initiatives and leading ground-breaking research in a variety of fields. 

"I look forward to working with Dr. Manley and I’m confident that her impressive skill set, in partnership with the School of Life Sciences community, will help advance the school’s efforts to innovate in immersive and adaptive learning, foster academic excellence, incubate transformative research and develop inclusive environments for students pursuing programs and careers in the life sciences," said Kenro Kusumi, dean of natural sciences.

In addition to her far-reaching goals for driving new research initiatives, Manley is passionate about enriching the student academic experience through exciting programs, improved recruitment practices and increased access to quality research experiences. 

Manley is particularly passionate about advancing the success of graduate students, and is looking forward to connecting the many facets of the School of Life Sciences to strengthen recruiting, hiring and retention. 

“Our graduate program has wonderful students, and there is so much potential for really taking that to the next level. I’m very excited to do that,” she said.

The School of Life Sciences undergraduate program enrollments have seen astonishing growth in recent years, particularly with the launch of five degree-granting programs through ASU Online, increasing online student enrollment to over 3,300 students. 

“The undergraduate path, program and growth recently has just been astonishing,” Manley said. “We need to get ahead of future growth and have a strong plan in place to make sure that the quality and scope of those programs remain as strong as they are now, and that the online and immersion programs are aligned with each other.”

Manley is adamant that the opportunity extends well beyond the classroom. Hands-on research experience is a crucial element of the undergraduate academic journey for life science students, and she considers it her role to support the development of those opportunities. 

“The stronger and broader our research program is, the more opportunity there is for undergraduates to get involved in research and everyone should be involved in research,” she said. 

“Science is about doing, it’s not about knowing,” she said. “I always tell undergraduates to get in a lab as soon as you can; don’t wait, do it now. Because if you like it, you’re going to want to be in the lab a lot. And if you don’t like it, you need to know that now  so that you can find out what it is that you do want to do.”

Manley is no stranger to implementing large-scale changes, and brings a wealth of experience in academics and leadership to her new position. 

She received her PhD in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989 and has led a remarkable career. She comes to ASU after 20 years at the University of Georgia, where she was a Distinguished Research Professor and served as the head of the Department of Genetics for the last five years.

An expert in developmental biology and molecular genetics, Manley's research focuses on the thymus  the organ in the body primarily responsible for the creation of T cells, an important component of the immune system. 

Two of the largest collaborative research projects she is currently working on involve gaining a better understanding of the development and function of the thymus in neonatal and aging immune systems, addressing the issue at the furthest boundaries of the life span. 

The immune system actually ages relatively early compared to other elements of the body; the thymus has dramatically reduced capacity to generate new T cells by age 30. While the T cells your body produces in childhood through adolescence are designed to last for decades, functionality starts to decline when production stops, and then continues rapidly at around 50–60 years of age. 

The steady deterioration of T cells to shape and control immune responses potentially underlies numerous other aspects of aging. 

“Obviously, your increase in susceptibility to infectious disease is a direct line, certainly in increased rates of autoimmunity  it’s directly an immune system phenotype,” Manley said. “But aging of the immune system has been implicated in heart disease, in increased rates of cancer, in Alzheimer's … It is implicated in everything.”

Manley and her research collaborators across the country are searching for a way to either slow down the progression of aging in the immune system, or perhaps reverse it entirely by creating new T cells. 

At the other end of life, her lab is also working to understand the function and evolution of the neonatal immune system. Infants carry an entirely different immune system at birth, and a functionally different thymus than an adolescent or adult. 

As an adult, your immune system relies largely on memory T cells  cells that establish a sort of pattern or protocol as you are exposed to diseases and infections and successfully overcome them throughout your childhood. 

“As an adult, as soon as you get sick, you’ve got some memory T cell that has seen that before, and they can fix it fast,” Manley said. “The immune response is faster because you’ve got those memory cells  that’s what memory cells are for.” 

Infants, however, have yet to be exposed to any of these memory-forming experiences. But they still need some sort of protective immune response. As such, the T cells produced in a neonatal thymus need to be quite different. 

Neonatal immune systems include T cells called virtual memory cells, which share some of the same characteristics as true memory cells. They respond very quickly to infection, but this same speed also has the potential to become damaging, so the thymus also produces a secondary set of T cells specifically designed to monitor and control the virtual memory cells. 

These cells stay with you as your immune system transitions into adulthood, and experts theorize that they continue to play very crucial and specific roles in lifelong immunity. 

“So our part of that project right now is trying to tease out the different functions of the cells that were made in the neonatal thymus and the cells that are made in the adult thymus. And to also ask, 'OK, what is it about that neonatal thymus that makes those special kinds of T cells?'” Manley said. 

A better understanding of the neonatal thymus also has significant implications for combating aging in immune systems by seeking a way to create new T cells. If a critical component of an adult thymus has to be made in a neonatal thymus, then developing a way to recreate adult T cells could end up with a crucial element missing. 

“All of this is linked,” Manley said. “That’s why we work across the entire life span  no individual time is a capsule unto itself. It’s all connected.”

Manley brings a similar philosophy to leadership: 

“I very much view leadership  academic leadership in particular, but leadership in general  as being a service job. You do this for other people; you don’t do it for yourself,” she said. “Leadership is actually not about what one person does, ever. Leadership is about what you do with your team. And that team that is already in place here is very good.”

Manley says she is excited to launch this new chapter in her career at ASU. 

“I feel like I’m at a point now where I want to pivot to be more outward-facing and to have an even bigger impact from what I do,” she said. “And I feel like being the director of SOLS is going to give me the opportunity and the platform to really do that.

“That and the reputation that ASU has for being not just an innovative institution, but one that really practices what it preaches.

“You want to try something? Propose it. Let’s get something on the ground, let’s try it and see if it will work. Very few institutions are fast-moving at the size and scope of a public university like ASU is, and I’m just very excited to be here,” she said. 

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