Simonses give $50 million to Cold Spring Harbor lab

James Simons, who with his wife donated $50 James Simons, who with his wife donated $50 million to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is pictured at Stony Brook University on Dec. 14, 2011. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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A Long Island couple has donated $50 million to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the hope of contributing to the precision analysis of an enormous amount of molecular data being generated by human genomics, tumor biology and the genetics of autism.

The gift from hedge-fund investor James Simons and his wife, Marilyn, of East Setauket, will establish the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology on the lab's campus.

Quantitative biology is an emerging interdisciplinary field that utilizes fundamental concepts from physics, mathematics, computer science and chemistry to better analyze biological data.

The gift will allow Cold Spring Harbor scientists to expand their work and explore vast areas of biology, aiding in the understanding and treatment of numerous disorders.

"It's a transformative gift, something that will really enable the quantitative biology program to recruit a lot more people than we anticipated and support their research," said Dr. Bruce Stillman, the laboratory's president.

Quantitative biology is vital, Stillman added, because it allows other areas of science to better elucidate biological findings. "We don't want to reinvent things that have already been invented, such as algorithms," Stillman said. "But we want to use algorithms to understand biology and medicine. I am hopeful that we will add to the development of new algorithms that will benefit everybody."

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Renee Fister, an officer with the Society for Mathematical Biology, which promotes interaction between the math and biological science communities, said, "This is a substantial gift, and that means they have the people and the mechanisms in place to make important contributions."

David Usher, a professor of quantitative biology at the University of Delaware, also applauded the donation and explained that the discipline is adding to the understanding of a vast range of biological systems.

Pharmacokinetics, the study of how medications are absorbed, metabolized and excreted, is an area that has long benefited from advances in quantitative biology, Usher said.

Cold Spring Harbor Lab's new center will be chaired by Adam Siepel, an associate professor at Cornell University who has directed the doctoral program in computational biology. He joins the lab in September.

Stillman, meanwhile, sees the donation as filling an enormous void in scientific funding.

"Philanthropic support of science is becoming increasingly necessary and important," he said, "and gifts of this magnitude allow programs like ours to be supported."

He added that after the completion of the Human Genome Project more than a decade ago, federal money for basic biological research dropped 22 percent, which has meant a loss of funding for numerous investigators.

"In inflation-adjusted dollars, that's enormous," Stillman said, noting federal funding has remained flat for some scientific enterprises, nonexistent for others.

The Simonses' donation is the third they've made in recent years to fuel scientific enterprise on Long Island. In 2011 they donated $150 million to Stony Brook University, and in 2008 they gave the school $60 million.

James Simons was chairman of Stony Brook's mathematics department from 1968 to 1976 and is credited with discovering the so-called Chern-Simons invariants, which have had wide use in theoretical physics.

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Marilyn Simons, president of their philanthropic foundation, holds a doctorate in economics. Her husband founded a hedge fund after his years in academia."Jim and I have been consistently impressed by the commitment of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's board, management and faculty to excellence in biological research and education," she said in a statement Monday.

"We are proud to provide financial support that allows this institution to recruit outstanding scientists like Dr. Siepel to pursue the most innovative research in cancer, neurobiology, genomics and quantitative biology."

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