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ASU ranked in top 25 in the world in biological sciences

September 02, 2011

Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s restructuring of classroom teaching and research in the biological sciences has paid big dividends – vaulting previously unranked ASU School of Life Sciences into the top 25 of all research institutions in the world.

The top 25 world ranking was developed by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a leading higher education and careers research company based in the United Kingdom. QS scores each institution in the subject areas of biological sciences, psychology and medicine through examination of publications and their rate of citation by other academic professionals, peer-review recommendations and employer rankings.

At the top of QS’s biological sciences list for 2011 is Harvard University, followed by University of Cambridge, UK (#2).  Ranked 21st, ASU’s School of Life Sciences is flanked by Princeton University (#19), University of Chicago (#20) and ETH Zurich Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (#22). 

“The ranking is a validation of School of Life Sciences faculty, staff and students’ strong teaching and research achievements,” said Robert E. Page Jr., founding director of the School of Life Sciences and now vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “However, there is a larger story here about the impact of an entrepreneurial culture, institutional upgrades in classroom technologies and approaches, and advancement of research partnerships across disciplines and with businesses, locally and globally.”

In another recent academic ranking, that of world universities compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, ASU was ranked 78th among the top universities in the world.

ASU’s School of Life Sciences was the first academic unit restructured at ASU to fully reflect the integrated, interdisciplinary vision of President Crow’s New American University. The strategic merger of three separate life science departments and a group of philosophers and historians of biology to form one cohesive, more flexible biological sciences collective has attracted top-ranked job candidates. Tenure-track hires in biological sciences increased 25 percent between 2003 and 2011, and included established international experts, as well as rising stars from emerging fields, such as bioeconomics, sustainability, bioinformatics and adaptive systems.

In turn, the boost in world-class faculty, focus on teaching science as it is practiced, and promotion of strong undergraduate research experiences, has drawn an increasingly diverse undergraduate and graduate student base. Since 2003, enrollment in ASU life sciences majors has nearly doubled, from 1,357 to nearly 2,700 students. Incoming freshman, more than 500 in 2011 (up 25 percent from 2010), include more women (57 percent) and minorities (37 percent).

Overarching institutional investments at ASU, specifically the development of large collaborative, cross-disciplinary centers and institutes, have supported these increases, as well as enhanced idea creation within the university generally. Many, such as the Biodesign Institute, Center for Biology and Society, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and the Global Institute of Sustainability, are staffed by or led by faculty in the School of Life Sciences.

Also, the formation of entities such as the Social Insect Research Group, ecoSERVICES group, Lightworks and Complex Adaptive Systems Initiatives have acted as pressure cookers for intellectual ferment and enterprise in the biological sciences and cross-disciplinary exchange.

Increases in research publications and citation rates (the category that QS ranked ASU most highly in), patents, and multiple, multimillion dollar awards in life sciences research have followed from National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Departments of Energy and Defense and NASA. In 2011, these have included a $3.2 million study of integrins by Tatiana Ugarova; a $1.4 million for studies of climate change and emissions by new hire Kevin Gurney; $1.2 million for development of molecular motors by Wayne Frasch; a $1.1 million study of neural architecture by Carsten Duch; and a $1.1 study of the evolution of human mutations by Sudhir Kumar. Kumar, who is also the director of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics in the Biodesign Institute, has also been selected as a finalist for the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation, to be held on Nov. 19, 2011, in Phoenix.

“School of Life Sciences is pursuing research and educational development on all seven continents, with focus on building transdisciplinary partnerships, advancing science communication skills and creating new 21st century approaches to student learning,” noted Brian Smith, who assumed directorship of School of Life Sciences in 2011. “We are striving to make an impact and address the big challenges before us, locally and globally. It feels good to have those efforts and investments recognized by others, both through citations of our research publications by our peers, and this exemplary ranking by Quacquarelli Symonds.”