The New Age of Discovery

Georgia State Is now one of the fastest growing research universities in the country.

OVER THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, Georgia State has garnered national recognition for improving student success regardless of background and exponentially raising graduation rates. Now it is developing a national reputation as one of the country’s fastest growing research universities.

Twenty-one years ago, Georgia State was named a research university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, setting the university on a trajectory to become a premier urban public research university.

Carl Patton,who served as Georgia State’s president from 1992-2008, has said the designation was the spark that fueled the university’s remarkable physical growth as well as its research portfolio.

“There’s a very symbiotic relationship between research and physical space,” Patton told the Georgia State University Magazine in 2013. “We joke that presidents have ‘edifice complexes.’ But it’s not really a joke. If we don’t have the right buildings, the right space, we can’t recruit the right people.”

Numbers vary, but estimates of the global death toll associated with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 reach upwards of 50 million. Vaccines developed since then have dramatically reduced the casualties and have nearly eradicated major diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, whooping cough and polio.

Still, influenza kills thousands of people annually, and it seems each year brings a new killer virus for which public health officials have no answer.In the last 10 years, viral conflagrations such as H1N1, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the most terrifying of all, Ebola, have filled headlines, destroyed lives and struck terror.

Zika, the scary virus du jour, has no approved drugs or vaccines and has now reached the continental United States.


Chris Basler is one of the world’s foremost virologists and a leading expert in emerging viruses. His lab has discovered a protein in Ebola virus cells that, when shut down, can stop it from replicating and infecting its host. He hopes his research can lead to a broad-spectrum drug that can someday treat Ebola and other highly pathogenic viruses.

“We need to be able to respond to these viruses as they appear,” Basler says.

Basler is founding director of the new Center for Microbial Pathogenesis in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State. He’s been at the university for about two months now.

His eighth floor office in the Petit Science Center is still a work in progress. But his lab is working at a steady thrum. Basler’s lab studies filoviruses, which include the Ebola and Marburg viruses and other deadly emerging pathogens and bioterrorism agents.

Five researchers from his former lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York moved to Atlanta to keep the research moving. (“The most important thing was to bring the people here,” he says.)

Basler’s lab also added new equipment, and now, he says, they are better equipped to continue their pioneering antiviral research. “We’ve got some new toys to play with,” he says.

Basler is a newly named Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Microbial Pathogenesis and is now the eighth eminent scholar at the university. His hire is part of the Second Century Initiative, a five-year program to add at least 100 new faculty and researchers to enhance the university’s research.

In his new role as director, Basler will hire additional faculty to expand the center’s work. In recent years, Georgia State has become a destination for distinguished — and well-funded — researchers like Basler.

In 1995, Georgia State was classified as a research university, and today it ranks among the nation’s top 108 public and private universities in the Carnegie Foundation’s elite category of top research universities. This category represents the highest level of research activity for doctorate-granting universities in the United States.

In addition, the university hosts one of the country’s only biosafety 4 (BSL-4) labs, a big reason Basler is here.

The lab is a “supermax” facility with the highest level of biosafety precautions, which gives Basler’s team the safety and security to expand their capabilities as they continue to develop potential treatments for Ebola and other deadly viruses.

“Having direct access to the virus we’re studying makes us better, and we’ll make progress more quickly,” Basler says.

In order to become the major research university it is today, Georgia State senior leadership sought to bring in researchers like Basler to address the most challenging issues of our time. To achieve this goal, no surprise, it takes money — funding in university research nomenclature.

“Our research growth is tied to the recruitment of faculty who are continuing to build our profile,” Becker says.

lab1Alicia Feagins, a postdoctoral researcher in Basler’s lab, sets up an experiment.

In the past two years, Georgia State’s research funding has grown by nearly $40 million, says James Weyhenmeyer, vice president for research and economic development.

Funding from federal agencies, which accounts for more than 78 percent of the total research volume at Georgia State, grew by 30 percent. This included increases of 235 percent from the U.S. Department of Education, 18 percent from the National Science Foundation and 11 percent from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Grants and contracts from private industry grew by nine percent.

“In the last five years, our commitment to compete for funding has helped secure outside support for research, which creates jobs and supports innovation in Atlanta and the state of Georgia,” Weyhenmeyer says.

The Second Century Initiative, or 2CI — the university initiative that brought in Basler and dozens of other researchers — was designed to build upon Georgia State’s 2010 strategic plan, with an emphasis on high-level research and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Georgia State’s research funding has increased 106 percent in the last five years, making it one of the nation’s fastest growing research institutions.

At the heart of the initiative is developing a culture on campus that recognizes the importance and impact of funded research.

“The faculty are key to achieving and sustaining the university’s level of recognition in the research community,” Weyhenmeyer says.

Environment has a critical role in the success of the faculty, particularly in the natural and physical sciences where facilities and equipment are key factors in securing grant proposals.

In addition to the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis, Georgia State recently started two university-level research centers — the Mark Chaffin Center for Healthy Development and the Center for Molecular and Translational Medicine — dedicated to health and medicine.

Researchers in the centers have already secured more than $55 million in external research funding. Basler’s lab has brought in nearly 5 million for two collaborative NIH funded projects to investigate viruses as emerging pathogens and bioterrorism agents and to develop drugs that undermine their viral functions.

Georgia State’s BSL-4 lab is one of only four in the nation on a university campus. The lab is a global resource funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources. Georgia State built the lab in 1998 when Julia Hilliard, professor of biology and a Georgia Research Eminent Scholar, established the Viral Immunology Center to study the Herpes B virus and other zoonotic viruses passed from animals to humans, such as rabies, SARS and Ebola.

The addition of the Petit Science Center was a pivotal project for Georgia State and has been the anchor in the university’s Research Science Center. This fall, the university opened Science Park II, a four-floor laboratory building with research labs adjacent to the Petit Science Center.

While Georgia State offers a first-rate research environment with a strong institutional commitment to resources, it’s the scientists who ultimately create an atmosphere for research accomplishment. “The new facilities are nice,” says Basler, “but you have to have good colleagues as well.”

lab3Research Assistant Professor Priya Luthra investigates antiviral compounds in Basler’s lab.


For Basler, the collegial environment at Georgia State was a selling point. He’s friends with Richard Plemper, a professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences — where Basler’s Center for Microbial Pathogenesis is housed — and several other researchers at Georgia State as well as others at Emory University, the University of Georgia and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Richard made me aware of what was going on here,” Basler says.

Plemper is a renowned scientist in his own right. He was the lead researcher for an international team that discovered an antiviral drug that may protect people infected with measles from getting sick and prevent them from spreading the virus.

Plemper says the drug could be used to treat contacts of a person infected with the measles virus who have not developed symptoms but are at risk of having caught the disease.

It’s Plemper’s experience in antiviral drug discovery that has Basler hopeful of collaborating with him and other Georgia State researchers to develop virus-fighting drugs and vaccines.

“[Plemper] and the other scientists at the university have a very complementary expertise,” Basler says. “Having that background and expertise is very useful.”

In recent years, collaborating researchers at Georgia State have made significant scientific breakthroughs and have earned substantial grants and funding from major federal funding sources.

Supported by funding from the NIH, Jenny Yang, associate director of the Center for Diagnostics and Therapeutics at Georgia State, led a research team that discovered the first robust and noninvasive detection of early stage liver cancer and liver metastases, in addition to other liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and liver fibrosis.

Liver cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, accounting for more than 600,000 deaths annually, according to the American Cancer Society.

Yang, professor of chemistry and a Distinguished University Professor, says liver cancers associated with high mortality rates and poor treatment responses are often diagnosed in the late stages because there is no reliable way to detect primary liver cancer and metastasis smaller than one centimeter.

Her interdisciplinary research team developed a protein agent that is 40 times more sensitive than today’s commonly used and clinically approved agents used to detect liver tumors.The agent also improves MRI detection and helps obtain high-resolution images of the liver.

“[The agents] provide double the accuracy and confidence of locating cancerous tumors,” Yang says.

Yang built upon that research to develop another imaging agent that traces changes in cancers and treatment without using radiation.

Jian Dong Li, founding director of the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, was one of the first 2CI hires in 2011. Li is a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor of biomedical sciences. He is also director of the Center for Inflammation, Immunity and Infection and specializes in inflammation, immunity research and respiratory infections.

Since his arrival, he has directed several significant health-related projects that have received major funding. Of particular note is his lab’s work on drug repositioning. Researchers have discovered that Vinpocetine, a commonly used drug derived from the periwinkle plant and used for to treat neurological disorders such as stroke, acts as a potent anti-inflammatory agent.

Elliot Albers, Regents’ Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, is celebrating three decades at Georgia State. When he arrived on campus, you could count the neuroscience and biomedical researchers at the university on one hand, he says.

“The biomedical research program was housed in a converted parking garage covered in stainless pipes that looked like the Pompidou museum,” Albers says, referring to Kell Hall, which housed the lion’s share of the university’s lab spaces until the construction of the Natural Science Center in 1992 and the Petit Science Center in 2010.

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience opened in 1999 and has received more than $53 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance. More than 100 neuroscientists work with the center — a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center — and it has expanded to include researchers from seven institutions in Atlanta.

“Although the scale of the research was small when I arrived, the trajectory of Georgia State becoming a major research enterprise was clear because of the entrepreneurial nature of the faculty and administrators,” Albers says.

researchersFrom left: Elliot Albers, Regents’ Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience; Jian Dong Li, founding director of the Institute for Biomedical Science; Jenny Yang, associate director of the Center for Diagnostics and Therapeutics.


That entrepreneurial nature  transcends the hard sciences. Georgia State has experienced a spate of recent successes in major grant funding from elementary education to its own innovative programs aimed at helping college students succeed.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Georgia State and its partner, the University Innovation Alliance, $8.9 million as part of the department’s First in the World Program to drive innovation in higher education. Georgia State is leading the project, which will will track the impact of proactive, analytics-based advising on 10,000 low-income and first-generation students at the 11 institutions of the alliance.

“Over the next four years, our institutions will produce groundbreaking evidence illustrating the impact of predictive analytics on student success that will have national significance,” said Tim Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success, and the project lead. “We are delighted to lead this project on behalf of 11 large public universities enrolling more than 400,000 students collectively.”

The trajectory of Georgia State becoming a major research enterprise was clear because of the entrepreneurial nature of the faculty and administrators.

The university is sharing its nationally recognized expertise in data-driven advising, known as the GPS Advising System, with other major universities. With the Georgia State’s early warning tracking system, struggling students get the timely interventions they need to get back on track for success in their college courses and programs of study.

Back on campus, Georgia State will soon open a financial education and counseling center with a $2 million grant from the SunTrust Foundation. This center uses data to identify students who are financially at risk and helps them get back on track with education and counseling. As part of the grant, Georgia State will develop a playbook to share with other institutions how to use predictive analytics to solve financial and academic issues.

In the College of Education and Human Development, researchers Amy Lederberg and Susan Easterbrooks are leading a $10 million research project to dramatically improve reading in children who are deaf and hard of hearing. The Center on Literacy and Deafness has research teams from around the country who are analyzing which types of interventions work best for early learners and helping to drive education practices.

In addition, Daphne Greenberg, associate professor of educational psychology and special education, established the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy with a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The center studies the underlying issues of adults who struggle to read and is developing and evaluating a curriculum to address adult learners’ needs.

Paul Alberto, dean of the College of Education and Human Development says the two new centers have generated momentum and well deserved attention for the college to seek out grants for scholarship and research activities.

In fact, a big chunk of that record breaking $120.2 million in external funding — almost 20 percent — was awarded to researchers in the college.

“What’s very encouraging to me is that we have several junior faculty members who are now first-time awardees,” Alberto says. “It bodes well for the future.”

It’s this kind of transformative research that excites Becker. Whether it is finding breakthroughs in Ebola prevention or better pathways for student learning, Becker says the real impact is more than just a dollar figure.

“Increasing our research portfolio is an important step for the university,” he says. “But to me, it indicates something larger. Our researchers are continuing to address the most pressing and complex problems and issues of our time and make significant breakthroughs that hold great promise for improving people’s lives.”

lab3Sudip Khadka, a postdoctoral researcher in Basler’s lab, tests compounds for antiviral effects.

Photos by Josh Meister