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Stanford University’s new president is a Canadian genius

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford's Canadian-born president.

Jeff Singer

Where Stanford goes, many other top-tier universities follow, and when that Palo Alto-based school chooses a new leader, as it just has, that choice gets widely scrutinized. What, after all, does a brain scientist from Canada know about the tech world's most famous incubator?

Rather a lot, it turns out.

Said choice is Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the first in his French-Canadian family to go to college. In one of his first interviews since he took up his post, Tessier-Lavigne presents his job as a challenging two-step. The top brain scientist is determined not to kill the goose that has laid many a golden egg, and intends to build on the school's tech-side strengths. "We know our engineering, our computer science, that's a big draw for us—the way it has contributed to the growth of the Silicon Valley ecosystem." [1]

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But he has no intention of allowing Stanford to become a  mere prep school for tech titans.  The humanities and social sciences have their place too.  "The great problems we face  going forward—global warming,  refugees—are not going to be solved by any one domain; they don't admit just a technological or a non-technological solution."

The school he inherits is sitting pretty, with new buildings, often designed by starchitects, steadily rising among the campus's swaying palms. This is thanks in part to grads who helped Stanford raise $580 million (U.S.) more than its nearest rival, Harvard, last year. [2]  That's no wonder: A study found that companies founded by Stanford alumni—the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Google, Instagram and Snapchat—generated some $2.7 trillion (U.S.)  in annual revenues back in 2011, collectively equivalent to the 10th-largest economy in the world.

It is Tessier-Lavigne's second kick at the Stanford can. In the 1990s, with degrees from McGill, Oxford and University College, London in his back pocket, the former air force  brat and Rhodes Scholar landed a professorship here.

Stanford got a man already at the vanguard of his field, publishing the first of more than 200 papers on how the brain develops and then decays. "My burning passion was to find out...how the neurons know where to send the axons, the wires that communicate to and from the brain, to identify, at a molecular level, the substances that enabled these connections to take place."

Fit from frequent bike trips, the earnest 56-year-old father of three hails, originally, from Trenton, Ontario. His favourite word is "passion," which, as above, tends to come when the subject is his research interests.

But, early on, he decided a life entirely in the ivory tower was not for him, and left his Stanford post to join a pharma giant, Genentech, based nearby. He soon became the company's chief scientific officer. "My wife [3] had worked there as a scientist. So when I was approached, it was less foreign to me than it might have been."

After Genentech, he headed New York's research-intensive Rockefeller University, a post that allowed him to keep a lab running while he also raised funds for a $500-million (U.S.) expansion of the school's premises on Manhattan's crammed Upper East Side. "I like fundraising—it gives you an opportunity to meet extraordinary people who typically have done amazing things with their lives."

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The new job will have an even bigger fundraising component, but won't allow him to indulge his evident passion for research indefinitely. "I'm moving my lab here, keeping my existing grad students. But when they finish, I won't replace them." In true Stanford style, though, he intends to remain on the board of Denali Therapeutics, a San Francisco-based company he co-founded in 2015 with the aim of fighting neurodegenerative diseases. (He has, however, stepped down as chairman.)

In this way, Tessier-Lavigne seems a natural fit for a school that has long prided itself on its symbiotic relationship with business, encouraging its profs to turn their research discoveries into real-world enterprises. "I've always seen academia and industry on a continuum," he recently said.

Yet he steers our conversation back to artsier disciplines, more than once. "Cultivating judgment, creativity, dealing with ambiguity, things you need in the next generation of leaders—these are skills you can acquire by studying the humanities and social sciences."

He praises his time at Oxford for exposing him not only to physiology, but also philosophy. "A school doesn't have to be either/or," he says. "It should have fundamental research, people who are driven to understand the secrets of nature, of economics, of the novel. But application is the domain of the university as well. Stanford has so far been  a model in both."

1. On a recent visit to San Francisco, Toronto Mayor John Tory claimed Southern Ontario's universities have provided a similar boost to the so-called Tech Corridor developing between his city and Waterloo.

2. Last year, Stanford raised $1.63 billion (U.S.) to Harvard's $1.05 billion (U.S.), while the University of Toronto set a Canadian record, bagging $248 million.

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3. Wife Mary Hynes is also a brain scientist—It was "romance over test tubes," Tessier-Lavigne says, and their third child, their only daughter,  was admitted to Stanford before he got the nod. "I'm not allowed to wave  at her on campus."

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