CUNY ASRC at 5: Annette Gray, the Center’s Executive Director, on What’s Behind and Ahead

Nina Gray
Annette "Nina" C. Gray

Just over five years ago, the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center, CUNY (CUNY ASRC) was a construction site on The City College campus. Since then, ASRC researchers have produced more than 400 scientific publications, mentored more than 180 students including its first class of Ph.D. graduates, and attracted over $60 million in funding. The CUNY ASRC has also opened 15 core facilities — labs with sophisticated equipment, never before available at the University — that benefit all of the campuses.
Annette “Nina” C. Gray joined The Graduate Center this past June as associate dean for the sciences and the CUNY ASRC’s executive director. As the center launches on a series of events to celebrate its anniversary, Gray discussed its achievements and mission:
The Graduate Center: What would you say is the CUNY ASRC’S greatest accomplishment since it opened its doors in September 2014?
Gray: Our biggest accomplishment is taking this beautiful high-performance research building and filling it with talented and dedicated scientists. We now have 250 researchers working in the building. Fifty of them are graduate students who are in training, and they’re doing a wealth of exciting work across the five different initiatives that we’ve established in photonics, nanoscience, structural biology, neuroscience, and environmental science.

In addition, we’ve established these core facilities that are serving hundreds of CUNY researchers on a regular basis. We’re achieving our mission of creating outstanding interdisciplinary research and bringing that to all of the CUNY campuses as much as possible.
We’re at the point now where we’re building new and innovative collaborations within the building and also across the CUNY campuses. We’re starting to see the emergence of very interesting scientific networks that span scientific disciplines, departments, and campuses.
GC: Just this summer, the CUNY ASRC received an $8.8 million grant from New York’s Empire State Development agency. What will the center do with the funds?
Gray: That grant is funding our Center for Advanced Technologies in Sensors for Exploration of Natural Systems and Environments, and it’s a great example of how all of our initiatives can come together. We plan to develop academic-industry partnerships that will lead to advanced sensor technologies.
The applications of those sensor technologies can be in any number of areas — there’s an emphasis on health care and environmental science, but there are also applications in communications and cellular and wireless technology. It’s a fantastic way of bringing together people who are looking at the design of sensors with a more mechanical and engineering mindset and those who are looking at biological sensors.

GC: What about the CUNY ASRC’s own grants to CUNY researchers?
Gray: We have an annual Seed Grant Program that helps facilitate CUNY researchers’ use of the center. We are a resource for CUNY and we want to make it as easy as possible for people to be able to take advantage of that, so we provide these grants to investigators who are interested in using the core facilities here and in collaborating with the faculty at the CUNY ASRC. It’s a way of jump-starting a potential new research direction or a collaboration, with the idea that the scientists will be able to collect important pilot data that they can then use for external grant applications so that they can continue the work.
Among the recipients are Professor Jean Gaffney (GC/Baruch; Biology, Chemistry/Natural Sciences), who received a seed grant to study fluorescent proteins in marine fish in collaboration with the Structural Biology Initiative, and went on to receive a five-year NSF CAREER award on the topic; Professor Maria Contel, (GC/Brooklyn; Chemistry), who worked with the Nanoscience Initiative on nanocarriers for cancer therapeutics, which helped her to renew her NIH SCORE grant to continue and expand her work; and Professor Timothy Ellmore (City College, Psychology), who subsequently received an NIH short-term project award to advance his study of working memory using combined EEG and functional MRI.
GC: Previously you were an executive director at NYU Langone Health, based in the medical school’s Neuroscience Institute. What drew you to the CUNY ASRC?
Gray: There are a number of things. One, I think the concept and the mission of the CUNY ASRC is truly unique: It houses incredibly important scientific disciplines that in and of themselves are fascinating and have the potential for dramatic impacts on humanity. But trying to bring them together and create interdisciplinary work among them is also an exciting challenge, and one that gives the opportunity to address questions that are hard for anyone else to address.
Even more important to me was the people, who are very passionate and committed. And the mission of CUNY overall — it’s awe-inspiring to be in an organization that has such a huge impact on so many people in the New York City area, in terms of education and training and launching people into the workforce. Being at the CUNY ASRC and being part of The Graduate Center creates this opportunity to provide training and experiences for people in all areas of STEM. I see this as an opportunity to show how CUNY can continue to advance people’s education and launch them into STEM leadership positions in academic, nonprofit, government, and industry careers.

Top photo credit: Alex Irklievski

Submitted on: OCT 8, 2019

Category: Advanced Science Research Center | General GC News