The Significance of George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Scientific Study

In order to truly value discoveries and accomplishments in modern day, we must give credit to all those who have contributed to it in the past. Whether the contribution may have seemed to be big or small, everything and everyone has a lasting impact on history that deserves to be remembered. In a world where time never stops and people are always striving towards innovation, it is important to take a minute to reflect on the impact history makes to the present. It’s why we even create historical markers to begin with; to be a reminder of individuals and events that made a difference in the community so they can be appreciated for generations to come. As historians and scholars, it is our job to highlight such individuals and institutions who have created opportunities for future generations to make ground-breaking research and discoveries. This project emphasizes one of these individuals who created an institute that helped advance the scientific community and just so happens to be located on George Mason University; The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Scientific Study. As their tagline states, innovation is tradition. Their mission is to perform research at the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, as well as complex adaptive systems to advance scientific understanding of the mind, brain, and intelligence.

Krasnow Institute likely to play role in Obama brain initiative |  Connect2Mason
The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Studies located at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. [1]

This stood to me as a biology myself because innovation is truly the core of what the scientific world strives for and to dedicate this institute to that concept is inspiring. It becomes even more interesting to me as I even wondered at first how this institution came to be, and I believe it is significant to be mentioned as part of its mission. As someone who is striving to become a future health professional, I can imagine the significance this building holds and the affect it has on the medical community, but to truly understand the history is our job as scholars. Without knowing the history, we can never truly understand the significance this institute holds or who we can honor for helping to create it. That someone we will also be researching side by side with the Institute is Shelley Krasnow.

Audience

I believe the primary audience to this historical marker are for students or professors in the scientific research fields with interests in advanced studies. This is because the Krasnow Institute of Advanced Study’s mission is to create innovation in the scientific world, and they want other people with the same shared interests to be able to join them on this journey to advancing medical research. Especially when thinking about how the Institute was made with the intent to have endless possibilities in research with no restrictions, that could be a dream come true for an aspiring researcher. Personally, I believe it goes beyond needing to be a neuroscience major or someone who is only specifically interested in brain research because the Krasnow Institute has shown to emphasize its’ values in various fields of life sciences. Of course, they are most well known for their brain and intelligence research, but the topics that are studies have broadened over the years that any student or professor interested in the mind or another science can find something fit for them. With that being said, I believe the best fit for a secondary audience to this historical marker could be anyone from the general public interested in health news or the latest advancements in science. There are so many people who don’t have to be aspiring scientists but still have genuine curiosity for the subject and like to be up to date on world health. Perhaps they have a family member or friend who has a neurological disease that they’re curious on the progress of a cure for, or maybe they have a mental disorder themselves that they wish they could be cured from. Especially now that we’re experiencing a pandemic, many people have gained interest in seeking progress for a cure on the news to worldwide diseases.

Photograph of Shelley Krasnow with a radium detector, 1950. [2]

Shelley Krasnow was a scientist and entrepreneur from Northern Virginia. He was born in 1907, and his parents were Russian immigrants. He attended City College of New York prior to beginning his career as an engineer and physicist. Krasnow was the director of the Geophysical Instrument Company which eventually became the Georator Corporation. It was manufacturer of high-tech electronic generators. He invested in land holdings in Northern Virginia prior to the mid-twentieth-century development boom. He also later on offered the University of Virginia numerous lands in Prince William County in the late 1950s that was used to develop its Northern Virginia branch. [3]

Krasnow was a firm believer in putting knowledge and education to good use in the greater community. He was fascinated by the study and research of human life in relation to its surroundings. He began studying the association between geography and human cancers in the 1960s. Krasnow indicated a wish to start an institute that would work “for the betterment of mankind.”[4]  In 1988, Krasnow and his lawyers founded the Virginia Institute for Advanced Study, which would perform cutting-edge research once it was completed and staffed. While Krasnow had imagined his institute being erected on 39 acres he owned close to Pickett Road in Fairfax’s eastern end, zoning laws would not allow it. As a result, Krasnow would have to petition the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to rezone the property or find another location for the project. Krasnow was quickly persuaded that Mason would be an ideal location for the Institute when he later met George Mason University President George W. Johnson and Sidney Dewberry, the founder of a local architectural and engineering consulting firm in Northern Virginia. Dewberry and Johnson courted Krasnow together with Senior Vice President J. Wade Gilley in the hope of founding the Institute at George Mason. Though initially (according to Krasnow’s friends) he was skeptical that the Institute’s scientists would be granted enough latitude to succeed in their studies at a public university, he was intrigued by Johnson and Gilley’s readiness to support academic exploration. [5]

GMU’s longest serving President from 1978-1996, Dr. George Johnson, posing for a picture inside of Student Union Building I on the Fairfax Campus of George Mason University, 1978. [6]

Krasnow died on September 25, 1989 at the age of 82 years old of cardiopulmonary arrest, leaving the 39 acres to George Mason University to sell and utilize the funds to construct the Institute for Advanced Study, which totaled the amount of $20 million towards the university. A local petroleum tank farm affiliated with Texaco also began leaking petroleum underground and into the water table under the former Krasnow property in 1991, according to reports. The Krasnow estate was then awarded $7.35 million in a settlement that took place in July of 1992. This was the second largest endowment George Mason had ever received since it became an independent university at the time and former president Johnson stated that, “it comes at a very, very good time for us, at a time when we’re going through potentially calamitous budget cuts which would slow our momentum and just wreck so much of the feel of the place.” [5]

Then in May of 1993, the University co-sponsored a scientific conference with the famed Santa Fe Institute to help decide which specific area of science it would explore for study. The meeting, titled “The Mind, the Brain, and Complex Adaptive Systems,” drew many scientists, including Nobel laureates Murray Gell-Mann and Herbert Simon. The conference as well as the paper that resulted from it, brought new concepts in the study of the human mind and brain. This soon became the institute’s mission alongside  how similar the human mind functions in education, decision-making, and other everyday human activities. Construction began right away that summer and the Institute announced its first Board of Directors in the fall of 1993, including George Mason University President Johnson and University Provost Frederick Rossini. Dr. Harold Morowitz (a scientist and Robinson Professor). In an essay written about the Institute, Dr. Morowitz highlighted what he hoped for them to achieve in the new space. “Behind the search for human happiness, satisfaction, understanding, and value, lies the timeless queries about the nature of the human mind. While these questions are philosophical, social, and theological, their answers rest in part on our ability to scientifically assess the human mind, the human brain and the relation between the two. It is this informed access to mind and brain that is the core of the mission of the Krasnow Institute.” [7]

News article from The Washington Post announcing the Krasnow Institute’s new home at GMU on April 3, 1997. [7]

While its permanent structure on the University grounds was being built, the Krasnow Institute opened in the Commerce Building, a rented property about a half mile north of the Fairfax campus in Fairfax City, in the summer of 1994. The $4 million and 30,000 sq. ft structure would house 40 employees, an MRI scanning center, a library, and multiple conference spaces. [8] The building grand opening was originally planned to open in summer of 1996, but was postponed until the following year and officially opened on May 2, 1997. [9] Many were excited about the newest addition to George Mason as many described it to look like “a cross between a research library and ski resort.” [7] It had already accommodated 30 researches in disciplines that included anthropology, neurobiology, and linguistics. Scholars were especially hopeful due to now having the opportunity to conduct studies that would lead to a better understanding of human cognition. This could lead to the possibilities of cures for various neurological diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Autism, and psychiatric disorders such as Bipolar disorder, Depression, and Schizophrenia. [10] There are other projects where scientists want to explore how language is developed, and how our brains are stronger than computers when it comes to various things such as recognizing faces. The best part is that it would all be done with the newest and latest technologies to the scientific world.

News article from The Washington Post discussing the Krasnow Institute’s mission on Oct 14, 1998. [10]
Photograph of Shelley Krasnow, 1985. [11]

Once all expenses from construction of the Institute and administrative costs were covered, the remaining funds were to be utilized to establish an endowment that will invite notable scholars to the Institute for up to 10 years. [5] Krasnow didn’t have any children to be heirs, and his wife had also died in 1981. With his generous donation and love for research and innovation, it has become the core purpose of the Krasnow Institute to seek understanding of the human brain. The Institute has since received nearly $41 million in research funding since its establishment, and it hosts conferences every year on cutting-edge themes in cognitive science. Many awards have been announced to the Institute for its accomplishments and as time continues, there can surely be even more success stories to be expected.

Statement of Significance

Any and all scientific break throughs made in the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study are because of Shelley Krasnow’s contribution. The significance of this building goes beyond our community and has part of a mission to change our understanding of technology within medicine. But why is that important? One day when there may be a breakthrough from the Institute with a cure to neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or Autism, so many people can finally be helped. Not only just for those individuals who have a neurological disease or psychiatric disorder, but it would also affect their family and friends seeing that person be cured. That is why understanding the significance to this building is so crucial whether someone may be a historian, student, or just a regular person in the community because it ties into and impacts our present and future. I believe people need to know this because without Shelley Krasnow or the creation of the Krasnow Institute of Advanced Study, we wouldn’t have the same amount or quality of researchers and resources available to us to conduct advanced studies. Especially when it comes to the topic of the human brain and intelligence, there is still so little scientists know about it and have yet to discover. Developing an understanding of how the mind works is a revolution itself that is so significant towards getting closer to learning why we are who we are. The least we can do as members of society is appreciate and honor visionary people like Shelley Krasnow that wanted to grant future generations unlimited opportunities for innovation and advancement. Even though he was never able to see it nor was it able to be constructed until after he died, it shows how he still genuinely wanted others to benefit from the Institute in the future. The most important aspect of this story is understanding that his goal was to create an institute for advanced study that wouldn’t restrict research and provide limitless possibilities for innovation. He wanted George Mason University to use his significant donation to make his dreams come to life and with the support of others, the institute was successfully created and has been an ongoing accomplishment ever since. That is why the Krasnow Institute is so significant because although it started with just a dream, it turned into a reality that hasn’t just made a difference in the scientific community or George Mason University, but it has provided so much opportunity that it has the ability to change the lives of millions of people around the world.

“I’m lucky to have met Mr. Krasnow, and it’s a real opportunity to have helped a visionary man like Shelley Krasnow make his dream come true — even after he died,” – George Mason’s Senior Vice President, J. Wade Gilley. [5]

Revised Marker

Shelley Krasnow was a scientist and entrepreneur with many interests including wanting to support biomedical research. When he died in 1989, he bequeathed a significant portion of estate worth $20 million to establish an institute in collaboration with George Mason University. The purpose was to advance human knowledge through research and thus, the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study was created. It started with a scientific conference in 1993 to set the Institute on a mission to understand on the human brain. This includes seeking how the mind, brain, and intelligence function, and the relation between the two. These areas are now both the Institute’s ongoing aim and Shelley Krasnow’s legacy to change the world.

Bibliography

[1] Hannah Menchhoff, “Krasnow Institute Likely to Play Role in Obama Brain Initiative.” Connect2Mason. George Mason University, April 11, 2013. http://www.connect2mason.com/content/krasnow-institute-likely-play-role-obama-brain-initiative.

[2] “Shelley Krasnow, ca. 1950,” A History of George Mason University,  http://ahistoryofmason.gmu.edu/index.php/items/show/248.

[3] Much of Krasnow’s story is recounted in a very useful article under A History of George Mason University, “For the Betterment of Mankind: The Creation of the Krasnow Institute.” A History of George Mason University. George Mason University, n.d. http://ahistoryofmason.gmu.edu/exhibits/show/prominence/contents/krasnow#_ftnref1.

[4] “The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University” Brochure, February 1995, Library Records 24.3

[5] Peter Baker, “George Mason U. Gets $20 Million Gift.” The Washington Post. Washington Post, January 8, 1991. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1991/01/08/george-mason-u-gets-20-million-gift/bd00b07a-222b-47b4-a35d-ed5f484a50fe/.

[6] Ángel Cabrera, “Remembering President George Johnson, a Visionary Who Created the University We Know Today.” George Mason University. George Mason University, 2017. https://www.gmu.edu/news/2017-05/remembering-president-george-johnson-visionary-who-created-university-we-know-today.

[7] Robert O Harrow Jr Washington Post Staff Writer. “GMU Gets a New Home for the Study of the Brain: Krasnow Institute Headquarters to Open.” The Washington post (1997): VA5C–.

[8] “The Implementation,” Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, 1995, Office of President Records 79.6

[9] George Mason University Factbook 2005-2006

[10] Victoria Benning Washington Post Staff Writer. “The Mind’s the Matter At Krasnow Institute: Facility at GMU Studies How Brain Works.” The Washington post (1998): 12–.

[11] “Shelley Krasnow, ca. 1985,” A History of George Mason University, George Mason University.  http://ahistoryofmason.gmu.edu/index.php/items/show/249.