Kellner Gift Establishes New Interdisciplinary Research Center at the Institute for Genomic Biology

Apr 02, 2024 11:25 AM
Julie and William Kellner

Thanks to a generous gift from Bill and Julie Kellner, the Center for Neurogenomics, Behavior and Society will be established in their name to bring together a breadth of fields, including genomic biology, neuroscience, the social sciences, and social work. 

The Kellner’s commitment will create the first named center of its kind in the United States. The Bill and Julie Kellner Center for Neurogenomics, Behavior and Society will bring together researchers from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, the Center for Social & Behavioral Science, and the School of Social Work. The Center will provide a platform for new collaborations across the University of Illinois System with the goal of furthering research and education in these disciplines that will better inform practitioners and policy makers in addressing society’s most pressing challenges.

One of IGB’s research objectives includes the use of genomics to study animal behavior. Specifically, the Gene Networks in Neural and Developmental Plasticity (GNDP) theme has broadened the discipline of neuroscience to include neurogenomics, which has led to the recent discovery that genes operate in the brain as part of complex gene regulatory networks, which in turn drives behavior.

“The gift from the Kellners will allow us to pursue high-risk, high-payoff projects that we could only dream about in GNDP up to now and will facilitate building interdisciplinary collaborations that are needed for contemporary studies of genes, brain and behavior from both scientific and societal perspectives,” said Alison Bell, a professor of integrative biology and the GNDP Theme Leader.  

The Center for Social & Behavioral Science was established in 2019 to harness the expertise of over 700 social and behavioral scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to understand a spectrum of mental and physical health conditions and develop interventions. According to Eva Pomerantz, a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Social & Behavioral Science, the Center aims to facilitate research on health that takes a “cells-to society” approach, considering a range of biological and social determinants.

“Our researchers focus exclusively on humans, so we are excited for them to make connections to the work on neurogenomics and behavior in non-human animals that the Kellner Center will support,” Pomerantz said. “The Center will also contribute to our Policy Research Legislative Fellows program in which graduate students are placed in local legislators’ offices to use their research expertise to develop evidence-based policies.”

The work at Center for Social & Behavioral Science aligns closely with the School of Social Work, where the faculty focus on child welfare, health and mental health, poverty, social innovation, social work research in schools, and workforce development.

“The Kellner Center presents a unique opportunity for cross-cutting integration of research findings across disciplines – research that will inform the development of innovative treatment methods, policies, and training programs for those on the front lines,” said Benjamin Lough, Dean of the School of Social Work. “It will enable us to ultimately transform the lives of those affected by severe mental illnesses.”

With cutting-edge research across these areas, the Kellner Center will help researchers advance their knowledge of the complex processes by which genes, the environment, and society as a whole shape individuals in a number of ways. The Kellner Center will also prioritize innovative programs in science communication and translation to treatment methods, inform policy decisions, and provide educational opportunities for a variety of audiences.

“Bill and Julie have been part of the Illinois family for 50 years. We remain grateful for their continued investments in our university and their tireless passion to improve the human condition through innovative programs in research and its translation to enhance treatment methods, inform policy decisions, and provide educational opportunities for our community,” said Barry Benson, the vice chancellor for advancement at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

William and Julie Kellner both graduated from the University of Illinois System—he graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1973 with a BA in political science and she obtained a BA in management from the University of Illinois Springfield in 1986. Julie currently serves on the University of Illinois Foundation Board as a governing director.

The Kellners are excited to support collaborative opportunities among the three University of Illinois campuses. “Each campus has something they can contribute to, and they all have wonderful people who focus on basic studies of the brain, mental health, and social work,” said Bill Kellner. 

“Neurogenomics encompasses all aspects of the human experience. Our main focus is mental illness, and we hope that at some point neurogenomic discoveries in this field will help those who have serious illnesses, whether through therapies or medication,” said Julie Kellner.

“We are deeply grateful to the Kellners for their vision, generosity, and confidence in us,” said Gene Robinson, Swanlund Chair of Entomology, and director of the Institute for Genomic Biology. “We are very excited about the potential of this center to make major breakthroughs in our understanding of the roots of behavior and the implications for treating mental illness, and we can’t wait to get started.”