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Biz Talk: CEO sees Hauptman-Woodward building on legacy of innovation

Eddie Snell came to work at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute the day before the center moved from its cramped quarters on High Street to its sweeping new home on Ellicott Street in 2005.

Snell timed his arrival that way. He wanted to see the start of this new era for the institute.

Snell, 47, a biophysicist, travels the world conducting research in structural biology, including crystallography, which examines the atomic structure of molecules.

He previously worked with the European Space Agency in England, and moved to the United States to take a job at NASA in Huntsville, Ala.

That’s a key area of research performed at Hauptman-Woodward, where Snell has served as chief executive for two years. Known for the pioneering work of the late Nobel laureate Herbert Hauptman, the institute is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

In an interview in his office -- where Snell keeps a small police box familiar to fans of the BBC’s “Doctor Who” -- he talked about his career and the institute’s legacy of medical and scientific innovation.

Q: How did you end up leaving NASA for the institute?

A: My research was of interest to some of the scientists here. And they invited me up to give a talk. And this was in the period where they were looking at new blood, they were looking at revitalization. And that talk turned into an interview. Cutting a few steps short --- which included going back home and saying to my wife, “Buffalo,” and getting the response, “Buffalo?” --- it became an offer to move here.

[Related: Six things to know about Hauptman-Woodward]

Q: As an outsider, what were your first thoughts of Buffalo?

A: I come from a city called Liverpool, and Liverpool has a very similar background to Buffalo. It had major shipping industry, automotive industry, large-scale industry, and it basically declined. When I was in Liverpool, the biotech, the high-tech electronics, came into the town, and I saw it going from this slump to this boom. And when I came to Buffalo, it was almost like seeing the start of that again. It had the same history there, but it also had some of the same seeds that were being planted.

Q: In layman’s terms, what is structural biology?

A: I always use the analogy to my sister, she’s a medical doctor. When a patient visits her, she’ll do some tests, make a diagnosis, then write a prescription. They’ll go to the pharmacy, they’ll hand that in, and they’ll choose the appropriate bottle, give them the pill, or the liquid or whatever. But what we actually do is determine why it’s that pill or why it’s that compound. Or if we have an illness where we don’t have a compound, understand how that illness manifests itself and make a new compound that works with it. And all of that happens at that very smallest scale.

Q: Can you see Herbert Hauptman’s legacy today?

A: I think so, because many of us here worked with him. And he was a very, very humble person. If you talked to him, you’d have no idea that he had a Nobel Prize or anything. And he just liked to talk and he just liked to bring people together. It’s a collaborative institution.

Q: The new institute building was designed to encourage that collaboration, right?

A: The architect [Mehrdad Yazdani] --- and this predates me, I just know this from talking to people --- he got everyone together and said, "Well what do you want in the structure?" And I think light was one of the things that was talked about. But also deliberate design so that there were interactions that were occurring. You know we have a common kitchen area where, at lunchtime, lots of people meet and talk and come up with ideas. Because although we have a very simple name for what we do, structural biology, I’m a physicist. One of my colleagues is a biochemist. We have a mathematician that works upstairs. We have computer scientists. Every one of us has a slightly different background. And when you mix that kind of background together, you generate ideas that none of those individuals would have come out with on their own.

Q: Where does Hauptman-Woodward fit with UB, Roswell Park and the larger research centers on the campus?

A: We like to think of ourselves as being nimble and efficient. We can rapidly respond to changes in the research environment. I also think that the nature of our support, we’re mostly soft money support --- that means we have to go out and generate our own research ideas --- that we have a very, very creative staff. It’s almost a Darwinian process: If you can’t do that, then your research career doesn’t survive.

Q: You travel a lot. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore --- everyone wants to be a life-sciences hub. Can Buffalo do it?

A: Well, I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley, Stanford area. And the biotech industry there is huge. But I always say that a dollar in Buffalo buys a lot more than a dollar in California. So I think when you compare us to California, I think it’s a wonderful place to do business and to grow something in.

Q: Federal spending on research has dipped as a percentage of gross domestic product. Does that concern you?

A: Of course, I think if you look at the number of Ph.D.’s in the country, they’re going up. The number of funding is going down. People are still getting that funding. We’ve got to be those people.

Q: What are the next 60 years going to be like for HWI?

A: We’re moving into an era now where, previously we looked at static snapshots of biology. The technology is now getting to the point where, instead of those photographs that would be a single person, we’re now able to create a movie of that person and then a movie of the crowd that person walks throughout. So we’re starting to understand biology --- not in terms of the very pretty, but simple, pictures of that single thing we’re looking at, but how that interacts with everything around it and how it functions and how it moves. And that’s a really exciting area to be in.

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