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An Ireland leads the University of Utah, in Korea

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Chris Ireland, a longtime professor and researcher who has made a career of studying sponges (yes, sponges), has worked for the University of Utah for more than three decades. He has a campus office, but it can be a little difficult to find. It requires a 15-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean and at least one change of planes, if not clothes.

Ireland’s office is in Incheon, South Korea. In case you missed the news, the University of Utah opened a campus there in 2014 and last year drafted Ireland to lead it. It’s not an autonomous branch of the university, as is usually the case when U.S. schools open extensions overseas; this is considered an actual part of the campus in Salt Lake City, albeit 5,883 miles west. Seventeen of the 19 faculty members formerly taught at the Salt Lake campus. The students’ degrees are from the University of Utah, and they are required to spend two semesters at the Salt Lake campus (students in Salt Lake are encouraged to study for a time in Korea). They enroll for school via the Salt Lake campus.

“Here in Korea, we are the University of Utah,” says Ireland via Skype interview. “That’s an important point. We decided we wanted to make it clear that what we were setting up here is an extension of the school.”

The school’s football team is the same one coached by Kyle Whittingham. To further drive home the connection, the school no longer confers the title of president to the head of the Asian campus, as it did with Ireland’s predecessor, Dr. In Suk Han — that belongs solely to David Pershing in Salt Lake City; instead, Ireland’s official title is chief administrative officer. Even the name of the school was calculated — not the University of Utah at Korea but the University of Utah Asia Campus.

“The beauty of this arrangement is that students here are getting the same education and same instructors and same instruction they would get on the main campus,” says Ireland. “… No distinction is made.”

Utah wanted to expand its global presence and mingle with the rest of the world when it was offered an opportunity to set up shop in Incheon. It’s a joint venture with three other schools — George Mason, Ghent University (from Belgium) and State University of New York. The schools share a 170,000-square-foot building. There are 235 students, and the majority of them are of course Koreans, although the school is recruiting heavily throughout Southeast Asia.

The school offers degrees in communications, social work, psychology and public health. The Utes are in the final stages of approving degrees in city and metropolitan planning, film and media arts, biomedical infomatics and global law, and hope eventually to add engineering and pharmaceutical sciences.

Ireland, who is 65, seemed an unlikely choice to lead the campus, at least to outsiders. He has been working at the university for 34 years as a professor of medicinal chemistry and eventually dean of the college of pharmacy.

Born and raised in San Diego, he came to Utah after earning a degree in chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, and a Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Land-locked Utah seemed to be an odd choice for a man with a degree in oceanography, but he pitched an idea to the school that was immediately embraced. Using his expertise in chemistry and oceanography, he wanted to focus on discovering new drugs derived from marine organisms — ocean sponges, specifically — that could be used to treat cancer. The university had been designated as a regional cancer center by the National Cancer Institute — the only one in the Intermountain West. Ireland was one of its inaugural members (years later it became the Huntsman Cancer Institute). He was hired initially as an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry.

“The reason the U. interested me is that I knew how to get the animals I needed, the sponges; what I needed were collaborators in the cancer/biology area,” says Ireland.

For years he traveled back and forth between Salt Lake City and ocean locations in the South Pacific and Asia to collect sponges he hoped to use as sources of cancer treatment drugs. The biggest concentration of those sponges was in the Indo-Pacific area — Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, etc. Early in his career he met his future wife, Mary Kay, on a field project in the Philippines. She is a marine biologist with a specialty in the taxonomy of sponges. They were the perfect team for the cancer research project and for years they traveled the world together in search of ocean sponges.

“As a team we worked together to collect the sponges,” he says. “She does the biology, identifies them, I isolate the compounds that are potential cancer drugs.”

At the urging of a Korean colleague at the university, Ireland traveled to Korea one or two times annually for many years to develop Ph.D. pharmacology programs in Korea. He became known throughout the campus for his work there, and when the school began looking for someone to lead its Asian campus, he was considered a natural choice.

The timing was good for the Irelands. With their four children grown and out of the house, they were eager to travel and continue their research as a husband-wife team, which they do when he can fit it in between his administrative duties. “(Mary) works here,” says Ireland. “She’s already started developing her own network of collaborators. We’re studying sponges from Korea.”

Asked about the progress they have made in finding treatments for cancer, Ireland explains, “Over the years we identified maybe a half-dozen compounds that show potential to treat cancer. Unfortunately, only one of them made it to clinical trials, and that drug failed. In reality the probability of finding a drug is very low. It’s like winning the lottery. But what we learned along the way about the chemistry and biology of cancer was really important. Our compounds became probes to study cancer. That was our real contribution.”

Ireland never envisioned an administrative career and the career path he has traveled, but he believes it is illustrative of the real roles that universities play in this age.

“What you learn at the university really provides you with a foundation with what you do for a career path,” he says. “Things change so quickly now you’d be hard pressed to find many people doing exactly what they studied to do. What I felt I got from my education was a strong foundation in science and problem solving and innovation. My job is to train you to give you the foundation.”