Introducing Anthony Monaco

On the tails of last week’s announcement unveiling the next residents of Gifford House, colleagues and former students of incoming University President Anthony Monaco agree that his decades-long contribution to the scientific community, coupled with a slate of leadership roles in academia, make the renowned geneticist uniquely suited to lead Tufts.

Monaco currently serves as one of five pro-vice-chancellors at the University of Oxford, a position similar in responsibilities to a provost at an American university. Monaco’s main task as pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resources has been to ensure that the academic priorities of the university are met with sufficient funds — a duty, he said, which necessitates a careful balancing act between student enrollment, professorial hiring and budget planning.

Such a position has pushed him to find unique ways to stretch the dollar — or pound — while still maintaining the academic objectives of the university.

“I have … endeavoured to be innovative in solving problems so that limited resources are used to maximum benefit for the institution to keep it world-leading in its mission,” Monaco told the Daily in an e-mail.

Crossing the pond

Monaco, a native of Wilmington, Del., has spent nearly two decades at Oxford, serving as a research fellow, professor and later, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford, before stepping down in 2007 for the pro-vice-chancellor position.

Oxford Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton said that Monaco’s time at an international institution would complement Tufts’ global focus.

“I think the international experience will be very valuable,” Hamilton told the Daily. “Tufts is a university with a very international outlook. He will be a major proponent of the international dimension of a Tufts education.”

Hamilton, having himself taught nearly three decades in American universities, serving most recently as Yale’s university provost, said that Monaco might have “a few moments” which would be challenging, but believed his return to American academia would be nearly seamless.

“I actually think the transition will be quite easy for him,” he said. “Tony is an American and knows America very well.”

Monaco, too, was confident that his move across the pond would generally go smoothly.

“There will be some challenges in moving back to the US from England; getting used to baseball again after 20 years of cricket for a start, but no obstacles that cannot be overcome,” he said.

In particular, Monaco cited Tufts’ and Oxford’s similar emphasis on a more personalized learning experience and teaching-oriented research as two areas where the institutions have overlapping values. He plans to promote the advancement of such objectives upon his move to Medford.

“[I]n order for the undergraduate experience to be enriched, it is paramount that small classroom teaching and personal contact with academics remain robust,” he said, “including the tradition of advising and mentoring of students.”

A scientist by trade

Monaco is no stranger to research pursuits. As a doctoral student in Harvard Medical School’s Program in Neuroscience, he discovered the gene linked to Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy, a feat that most would consider a “home run,” according to colleague Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Green told the Daily. “It’s probably more notable than many Ph.D. students.”

Monaco’s work over the past 15 years has focused on identifying the genes responsible for common childhood disorders, including dyslexia, autism and language impairment. The Monaco Group, a research team in the Wellcome Trust Centre led by Monaco, has been responsible for identifying a number of these genes, as well as advancing work on autism, according to Dianne Newbury, a member of the group.

Newbury has worked with Monaco as both a research assistant and postdoctoral student for the last 13 years at Oxford. She called his contributions to the field of neurodevelopmental disorders “a cornerstone.”

“[Professor] Monaco is a true pioneer in the field and his departure will be a loss to the scientific community,” she told the Daily in an e-mail.

Balancing new and old responsibilities

By 2007, in his ninth year as director of the Wellcome Trust Centre, Monaco was ready for a new challenge — one that would take him further from the lab than ever before.

“I considered the option of directing a research institute at another university but was drawn to the challenge of providing leadership centrally in the university, across all disciplines as this would truly broaden my horizons,” Monaco said.

While serving as pro-vice-chancellor, Monaco has continued to spend one day a week in the lab supervising his research group. His decision to continue in this limited yet consistent capacity, according to several members of the group, has allowed researchers sufficient breathing room to pursue their own interests while still benefitting from a helpful amount of guidance from Monaco.

“He really is a good model for a group head,” postdoctoral researcher Antonio Velayos-Baeza told the Daily. “He gives a lot of freedom to his post-docs and group. … He’s not the kind of leader that pressures day-to-day work.”

Silvia Paracchini, another postdoctoral researcher in the Monaco Group, similarly commended Monaco’s leadership capabilities.

“Tony is a great person to work with and has been an outstanding advisor,” Paracchini told the Daily in an e-mail. “He is extremely good at managing people.”

Megan Dennis, a postdoctoral student of Monaco’s from 2004 to 2009, said that despite Monaco’s demanding responsibilities as both an administrator and a scientist, he greatly valued serving as a mentor and sharing his research.

“He was down to Earth, completely available,” she told the Daily. “He would still take the time to respond to all my e-mails immediately. We talked on the phone often — he was completely there.”

Green, who has known Monaco both professionally and personally for 20 years, said that Monaco’s dual role in both the sciences and academic administration makes him “uniquely qualified” to lead Tufts.

“While he might be a geneticist by training, he has a deeper appreciation for academics,” Green said. “At Oxford, you are shoulder to shoulder with people who are not scientists.”

Hamilton agreed that Monaco’s research experience will enhance his contributions as head of the university.

“His experience in the world of scientific and medical research will place him in a great position to be a strong and effective president at Tufts,” he said.

As his return stateside gets underway, Monaco, for the time being, hopes to continue some of his research projects during a transition period for the Monaco Group. But given the other responsibilities he will take on as university president, he does not intend to start a new research laboratory at Tufts.

“As president, I would hope to facilitate many research initiatives at Tufts,” he said, “drawing on my experience and working with other senior colleagues.”