A decades-long friendship and a shared passion for basic science has inspired a $15 million gift to the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) at Washington University in St. Louis to fund undergraduate programs and graduate student fellowships in the life sciences.
DBBS’ founding director, P. Roy Vagelos, MD, and his wife, Diana Vagelos, made the gift to honor former Chancellor William H. Danforth, MD, who died last year at age 94. Roy Vagelos, an internationally renowned physician-scientist and pharmaceutical executive, created the DBBS program in 1973 with Danforth’s unwavering support.
A pioneering model for interdisciplinary education in the life sciences, DBBS united basic science departments from the School of Medicine with the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences to offer unparalleled training and research opportunities for undergraduate, graduate and medical students. Such collaborations elevated the caliber of the university’s life sciences curriculum while also advancing scientific discovery and innovation.
“Bill Danforth was convinced that the improvement of human health would depend on good doctors as well as new knowledge emerging from biomedical research,” said Vagelos, chairman of the board at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals since 1995. “He strongly felt that a great university medical school would be rooted in science. We shared this belief.”
The Vageloses’ gift establishes an endowment designated for two purposes: $10 million for new graduate student fellowships across DBBS, particularly in novel research areas, and $5 million to bolster programming for undergraduates. In recognition of the Vageloses’ generosity, the university will rename DBBS the Roy and Diana Vagelos Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences.
“In founding DBBS, Roy forged unprecedented connections between academic departments, Washington University’s main campuses, and undergraduate students and medical school faculty,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said. “Fifty years later, the division remains a nexus for pathbreaking science conducted at the university. This gift will raise DBBS to even greater heights and expand its reach to more aspiring physicians and scientists.”
After a 10-year career at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Roy Vagelos came to Washington University, where he succeeded Nobel laureate Carl Cori as head of the Department of Biological Chemistry in 1966. Besides the creation of DBBS, key accomplishments during his tenure included recruiting leading scientists to the faculty and founding the university’s highly regarded Medical Scientist Training Program, which offers students the opportunity to earn a doctorate and medical degree simultaneously and is considered among the top MD/PhD programs in the country.
In 1975, Vagelos left the university to join Merck & Co., where he directed the discovery of the statin drugs Mevacor and Zocor for reducing blood cholesterol. There, he ascended to CEO and chairman. After retiring from Merck, Vagelos joined the Board of Directors as chairman of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. He is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National of Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
Additionally, Vagelos and his wife are well-known philanthropists who have supported scholarships, fellowships, professorships, facilities, and science and medical education at other major universities as well, including their alma maters. Roy Vagelos graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and what is now the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Diana Vagelos, a former overseer of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, graduated from Barnard College, where she currently serves as vice chair of the Board of Trustees.
Washington University’s DBBS in particular is a point of pride for the Vageloses. The division serves as a bridge of sorts across Forest Park by joining the university’s two geographically separate academic campuses. Among its aims is to minimize instructional overlap, expose undergraduates to medical school faculty and serve as a pipeline for undergrads interested in pursuing advanced degrees in the biosciences, including medical education. The new gift will provide students with added resources, including increased fellowship opportunities to ease stress and reduce time spent applying for grants so they can more easily focus on research itself.
“Research is ultimately the expression of how we improve at treating diseases,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Roy and Diana’s generous endowment will allow us to strengthen research enterprises on both campuses by leveraging the last five years’ remarkable growth in research technologies to enhance science education across the university.
“The gift also speaks to Washington University’s supportive, tight-knit community, where lifelong professional partnerships and personal relationships are formed,” Perlmutter added. “Roy conceived of DBBS, and Bill Danforth brought it to life.”
Danforth and Vagelos could talk for hours about basic science — the intricacies, the possibilities — but when it came to enhancing the university’s training in the life sciences, their discussions were brief and their decision-making quick and decisive. “When I explained to Bill what I was trying to do in creating DBBS, he became excited and immediately suggested funding sources,” Vagelos recalled with a chuckle. “I didn’t even have to ask for the money. He offered it. It was incredible.”
Vagelos’ vision for DBBS proved prescient.
“It’s mind-blowing to me that 50 years ago, Roy Vagelos recognized the importance of breaking down administrative barriers and disciplinary silos to help provide cutting-edge training for undergraduate, graduate and medical students,” said Feng Sheng Hu, PhD, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences, the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, and a professor of biology, and of earth and planetary sciences. “I’m particularly delighted that this gift includes a focus on undergraduate programs. It will unlock exciting opportunities for our students, and investing in their careers at an early, formative stage will ultimately advance both research and medicine.”
By the time Vagelos became DBBS’ founding director, he had notably improved the Medical Campus by recruiting leading scientists to the faculty and establishing the prestigious Medical Scientist Training Program.
“Roy was the best department head I saw while I was at Washington U,” Danforth said during a 2007 interview for Becker Medical Library’s Oral History Project. “He was incredible. … Roy was so imaginative. He went out of his way to get good people and make sure things worked well.”
Since its creation, DBBS has ranked as one of the best doctoral programs in the U.S. The division comprises about 600 graduate students and 13 doctoral training programs, for example, in cancer biology, immunology, neurosciences, computational and systems biology, and plant and microbial biosciences. Today, faculty members from 30-plus departments across the university, including those at the School of Medicine, the McKelvey School of Engineering and Arts & Sciences, contribute to the admission, teaching and research training of the division’s students.
The Vageloses’ gift is a testament to Washington University as a major research powerhouse that continues to grow. The School of Medicine, for instance, is a top recipient of NIH funding. And a state-of-art neuroscience research building is under construction on the Medical Campus.
“I’ve been participating in the university’s strategic planning, and there’s been a lot of talk about how we’re a multiversity, pulling in many directions, not a university,” said Steven Mennerick, PhD, the DBBS interim associate dean of graduate studies and the John P. Feighner Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology. “The interdisciplinary, cross-school vision of Dr. Vagelos unified diverse stakeholders in a schoolwide vision of biosciences training. The vision recognized that the best science is done at the boundaries between departments and disciplines. His plan encompassed undergraduate, medical and graduate education, three major training efforts in biology and the biosciences.”
After Roy Vagelos left the university in 1975, his relationship with Danforth continued to thrive. At Danforth’s invitation, Vagelos served on the boards of the Danforth Foundation and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Additionally, the Vageloses, who reside in Far Hills, N.J., have continued their support of the university over the years by funding a professorship and a fellowship. To their delight, their granddaughter Emma is a second-year undergraduate.
“Washington University is one of the world’s great academic and research institutions,” Roy Vagelos said. “Bill Danforth devoted his life to the university because he knew that knowledge and research, ultimately, could better humanity. DBBS is a source of pride for both Diana and me, and we want to honor Bill’s legacy by further elevating an already stellar program.”