Endowed Professorships Help Geisel Research and Scholarship Thrive

Bruce Stanton, PhD. Photo by Kurt Wehde

For 16 years, Bruce Stanton, the Andrew C. Vail Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the Lung Biology Center at the Geisel School of Medicine, has kept a gold-colored rock on his desk, crafted by a six-year-old with cystic fibrosis. “Every time I feel overwhelmed or tired or unmotivated, I look at that art project and get back to work,” says the scientist, who is founding director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Research Development Program at Dartmouth, one of just seven nationwide. 

Among people with cystic fibrosis, an inherited genetic mutation causes cells lining the digestive and respiratory systems to produce thick, sticky mucus that clogs organs and provides a hospitable setting for all manner of bacteria, leading to chronic infection, scarring, and premature death. That’s the bad news.  

The good news is that with drug discovery informed by insights into lung biology driven by scientists like Stanton, the median lifespan for a person with cystic fibrosis has increased by more than a decade in the last 16 years. The gilded rock’s creator, now 22 years old, has seen her own lung function improve from just 50 percent to nearly 97 percent through the use of medications Stanton helped to develop.  

Stable funding is vital to that pace of discovery. For the past 11 years, says Stanton, the continuity and ambition of his research team has been sustained by funds associated with his endowed professorship. 

Consider, for example, their situation in 2019, when seven of his National Institutes of Health-funded projects were simultaneously up for renewal, a time-intensive and stressful process afflicted by lags of weeks and sometimes months. For staff, the uncertainty can make jobs with more stable funding streams an attractive alternative. “The professorship is a cushion,” says Stanton, who notes that recruiting and training staff to work independently in his lab can take a year or more. “What I said to everyone in the lab is, ‘Even if we don’t get all of the grant funding right away, you’ll be ok because of these internal funds.’” 

More recently, Stanton has dedicated funds from the Vail Professorship endowment to early-stage development of a new clinical approach to treating respiratory infections without antibiotics, using a technique our own immune system deploys. “We found that lung cells secrete these really tiny envelopes that deliver very small microRNA molecules to bacteria and no one has ever shown that before,” he says. “The microRNA reduces the ability of the bacteria to establish long-term infection.”  

The ambitious project has potential far beyond the 30,000 people in the U.S. living with cystic fibrosis; prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic respiratory diseases were the third leading cause of death in the United States. “Drug companies aren’t really interested in developing antibiotics because there’s not a lot of money in them,” says Stanton, who worked with Dartmouth’s technology office to receive a provisional patent for his team’s approach. “It’s up to us to develop new technologies and approaches that can deal with drug-resistant, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”   

Sam Neff D’21

Funds from professorship endowments also help smooth bumps in the road as the next generation of scientists gain new skills. Four years ago, Sam Neff D’21 emailed Stanton—a first-year undergraduate, he wanted to join Stanton’s research team, combining his own cystic fibrosis experience with basic discovery. In less than a week, the two had launched a collaboration that continues to this day. 

 “We’re working on a really terrific project right now,” says Stanton, who hired Neff as a full-time lab employee as soon as he graduated. For research faculty charged with grant funding their own salaries and labs, time invested in teaching and mentorship can be hard to justify. Endowed professorships, he says, rebalance the scales. “I’m not sure I would have taken him on without the backstop of the professorship.”

Bruce Stanton’s international reputation in lung biology garners a fair share of job offers. Thanks to the Vail Professorship the grass isn’t greener at those other schools. “We all want to feel valued and recognized for our work,” he says. “An endowed professorship is the ultimate recognition for excellence in research and scholarship.” 

With more than 100 collaborators in the Lung Biology Center, Stanton only wishes he could extend that recognition more broadly.  “I try to recognize and reward the faculty who work with me however I can,” he says. “There are a number of people in my group who are worthy of endowed professorships.” 

Written by Sharon Tregaskis