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Salk Institute’s new president to tackle ‘endless frontier’ of science

Walk down the hallway that leads to the president’s office of the Salk Institute and you see six photographs on the wall. They show the six Nobel Prize winners who did their life-science research at Salk.

Incoming president Gerald Joyce — everyone calls him Jerry — said they are a symbol of the Institute's laser-focused vision.

“The faculty and other scientists at Salk focus intently on science,” Joyce said. “As important as the teaching mission is, that’s not what we do here. As important as the clinical mission is, that’s not what we do here. We are 100% focused on scientific discovery.”


Jerry Joyce is a fast talker who seems to have a hard time sitting still. A native of Kansas, he came to San Diego to get his doctoral degree, as well as a medical degree, from UC San Diego in the 1980s.

Joyce has a long and deep connection to the Salk Institute. He did much of the work for his Ph.D. there and he later returned to be a postdoctoral researcher. He and his wife got married in the courtyard of the Salk Institute on the day of the Fall Equinox.

Joyce’s research specialty is on RNA, a close cousin to DNA. He’ll step into the office of the president from his current role as the Chief Science Officer at Salk, where he has been on the faculty since 2017.

Joyce said the heritage of the Salk Institute, founded by Jonas Salk in 1963, is built on an impressive past but it also demands a focus on the future of science.

“As much as we admire all the great achievements in the past, it’s all about what we do next,” he said.


So what IS next for Salk on that endless frontier of science?

“We now see a union of biological systems with new technology, especially computational technology to harvest big data, and use that as a guide to experiments and hypothesis formation,” Joyce said.

One example: The effort at Salk to map the 90 billion neurons of the human brain.

“The scale of this data set is insane. It’s not only large, it’s multi-variant. You’re trying to mesh different data streams together. The only way we can do this is get much more sophisticated in our biocomputational abilities.”

The brain mapping project is funded by a $77 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the biggest grant in the Institute's history.

Photographs of Nobel Prize winners who worked at the Salk Institute seen in a hallway that leads to the president's office. March 7, 2023
Roland Lizarondo
Photographs of Nobel Prize winners who worked at the Salk Institute seen in a hallway that leads to the president's office. March 7, 2023

Joyce will take over as the Salk Institute is expanding. They are fundraising for a new building that will add 100,000 square feet to the physical footprint. They expect to increase their faculty, now at just over 50 professors, by 20%.

As president, Joyce can’t just be a scientist. He’s got to be responsible for the future expansion and for the Institute's culture. In the past five years, Salk has faced lawsuits alleging sexual discrimination and harassment.

Joyce responded by saying there has been a shift in the culture of the Salk Institute.

“We are much more collaborative, and much more inclusive than we were five years ago, 10 years ago and 15 years ago,” Joyce said.

“That may be a trend across all of science but at Salk, we really believe in that, day to day, and you see that in the type of new faculty hires we make and across all positions at Salk Institute.”

Jerry Joyce officially assumes the role of Salk Institute President on April 21.