Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2006
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For two decades, the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research (ICBR) has laid the cutting-edge tools of genetics and molecular biology at the fingertips of University of Florida researchers. This summer, it advances that mission as ICBR expands into new state-of-the-art facilities under the guidance of a new director. That is, just as soon as the new director gets back from Mars — or, at least as close to Mars as you can find on Earth.
Robert Ferl has spent the majority of sunny July in sub-arctic Canada, huddled on the edge of an ancient crater under environmental extremes that parallel those of the red planet.
The Haughton crater is the ideal location to test how his genetically modified plants would react to space exploration. Found on the world's largest unmanned island, the area's lack of moisture and freezing temperatures combine with the unique chemical after-effects of an ancient meteor strike to create one of the best Mars analogs on the planet. The grueling trip there involved a short stay with a local Inuit tribe while keeping his fingers crossed for clear enough weather to reach camp via a small twin-engine airplane.
"Robert Ferl is what I call a 'technique kind of guy,'" said Curt Hannah, one of ICBR's co-founders. "He knows what makes research work and what you have to do to get results. That's what the center needs to keep growing."
The primary mission of ICBR is to provide UF's biotechnology community with centralized research facilities that offer equipment and trained staff for the latest in technologies, such as DNA sequencers and flow cytometry. These are technologies that are usually too expensive or unwieldy for individual researchers.
More than six months ago, as plans were being laid to move the center's operations into the $84.5 million University of Florida Cancer & Genetics Research Complex, the search began for the person to head the newly housed endeavor. After months of deliberation, the finalists included notable researchers from across the globe and the scientific community—from the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis to the University of Virginia's medical school.
In the end, Ferl's marathon track record of heading research on UF's home turf made him the ideal choice, said Win Phillips, University of Florida's senior vice president for research. "He's known for his own outstanding dedication to research, but he's equally well admired for his ability to work with others and coordinate efforts," Phillips said.
Ferl first came to the University of Florida as an assistant professor of botany in 1980. In six years, he rose to become his department's chairman, and thereafter took charge of ICBR's DNA Sequencing Laboratory in 1988. At the time of his appointment, he was ICBR's assistant director. Of course, his new role will mean more desk work and a little less time to devote to exploring pseudo-alien worlds. However, there is just as much fun to be had, Ferl said.
"It's a big task. And it is, after all, an administrative job," he said. "But when you get to administrate cool equipment to some of the best researchers in the game, just seeing that you've helped that happen is as good as doing the work yourself."
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