Burnside tackles obstacles to faculty research

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs



Vice Chancellor Beth Burnside oversees the campus’s research efforts from her California Hall office — which affords a nice view of her lab in Valley Life Sciences.
Peg Skorpinski photo

09 May 2001 | When Mary Beth Burnside retreated to her lab in 1990, after seven stressful years overseeing the reorganization of the life sciences at Berkeley, she hoped to leave administration behind forever.

It was only arm-twisting by friends and colleagues, plus her frustration at the obstacles to research, that convinced her to reenter the fray.

Vice chancellor for research since January, Burnside’s mission is to push aside those barriers and make research fun again for campus researchers, who are often stymied by regulations, paperwork, and the administrative complexities of doing research at Berkeley.

“My goal as vice chancellor is to make it as easy as I can for faculty and students to do research on this campus,” she said. “Berkeley has an extraordinarily creative and talented faculty. You don’t have to motivate them, you just have to get out of the way.”

Overcoming obstacles
The problem is not with the campus research climate, she emphasizes. Faculty members are endlessly creative, research money flows copiously from federal and state government — $430 million last fiscal year alone — and Berkeley has a good record of attracting and retaining faculty, according to Burnside.

What frustrates faculty, she said, are the seemingly small things — administrative practices that make hiring a post-doctoral fellow a month-long ordeal; a proliferation of rules and regulations, mostly mandated from outside the university, all requiring training and documentation; little time for planning and coordinating between departments or even among labs within the same department; and multiple accounting procedures.

Coupled with the departure of experienced staff and too little training of new employees, the burden inevitably falls on the faculty and overworked support staff, she said.

‘Ear’ time
Since her appointment was announced last June, Burnside has put in a lot of “ear” time with faculty members. She is heading up a chancellor’s cabinet initiative on research support to tackle some of the most pressing research issues. Working with Suzanne Pierce, chair of the Management Officers Group, she has set up a task force that is now conducting focus groups in several departments to generate a priority list of problems and to develop strategies for tackling them.

“The point is to get campus units together to look at whole processes, involving multiple campus units, from beginning to end, cradle to grave,” she said. “We want to empower the staff by making procedures and policies as effective and efficient as possible.”

She hopes to involve the Academic Senate in this process, too, and to work more closely with its committee on research.

Texas roots
Tall and gracious, Burnside is a native of Texas, where she grew up on a rice farm and ranch outside Houston. She preferred herding cattle, on horseback, to the rigors of farming (she got her first horse at the age of two).

After earning her B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. in zoology and developmental biology at the University of Texas at Austin, Burnside joined the Berkeley faculty in 1975 as an assistant professor in anatomy. She became a full professor of molecular and cell biology in 1982 and was honored as a chancellor’s professor in 1996.

She was dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters and Science from 1983-90, administrative experience that helped prepare her for here current campus role. She is a merit awardee of the National Institutes of Health and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Now, instead of horses, she keeps a dog — a large black and white Great Dane named Mr. K or Koshi, short for Koshare, the black-and-white Hopi clown kachina. As Burnside moved into her new California Hall office January 1, the rambunctious Mr. K, a relatively old 8 1/2, and his visiting sister brought the campus police running, after Burnside accidentally set off an alarm. Guns drawn against the barking, growling dogs behind the doors of the vice chancellor’s office, the police were only mildly amused.

“I definitely started off with a bang,” she said.

From office to lab
As Burnside takes the bull by the horns, she hopes to keep one foot in her own lab, where she studies tiny molecular motors that ratchet along the skeletons of cells. Her lab recently found two genes for motor proteins that may be involved in degeneration of the retina, as happens in retinitis pigmentosa.

Because she concentrates on motor proteins in the light-sensitive photoreceptors of the eye, Burnside prefers to work with animals that have large eyes, in particular striped bass.

Using these and smaller sunfish and zebra fish, she and her 12-person lab are trying to pin down what these motors do and why they appear to be critical to the survival of photoreceptors.

Her enthusiasm for the research is evident as she explains the intricacies of molecular motors. It’s clear too that she is enthusiastic about other campus research. The two California Institutes for Science and Innovation, QB3 (Institute for Bioengineering, Bio-technology and Quantitative Biomedical Research) and CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society), are enormously exciting initiatives, she said. And two recent proposals to the National Science Foundation — for a nanotechnology center and a Center for Gravitation and Cosmology — play off the campus’s cutting-edge research.

“Our faculty are very, very strong,” she says. “The problem is care and feeding of them.”

Burnside recently hired Tom Kalil, former deputy assistant to President Clinton for technology and economic policy, to work with her and the College of Engineering in the implementation of CITRIS and on the implementation of QB3, a multi-college, multi-campus interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Having Tom Kalil work with us in developing these institutes is an extraordinary opportunity for Berkeley,” she said.

If leading the campus’s research efforts should become stressful, just look for Burnside in the Japanese garden of her Kensington home. “When I became dean of biological sciences in 1983, I bought myself a hot tub for my mental health,” she said. Now gardening helps her relax. In fact, her hot tub is now a planter.


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