Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

Reunion Conference Looks at Biology’s
Past, Present, and Future

The Graduate School’s Biology Reunion was a rich mix of scientific talks, personal reminiscences, and discussions of the history and future of biology in the academy, the private sector, and the publishing world. About 200 people attended from across the United States, California to Maine, and from as far away as China and the UK.

Every year the Graduate School and the Association of Yale Alumni host a reunion that doubles as a scholarly conference. This one, May 4–6, was unique in bringing together alumni, students, and faculty from nine departments: Cell Biology; Cellular & Molecular Physiology; Computational Biology & Informatics; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Genetics; Immunobiology; Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry (MB&B); Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology (MCDB); and Pharmacology.

biology reunion

Lively discussions among students, faculty, and alumni took place at the poster sessions and during breaks between the scheduled talks.

Yale President Richard C. Levin (PhD 1974, Economics), Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard, and Medical School Dean Robert Alpern formally opened the conference with words of welcome.

Dean Pollard spoke of dramatic changes in the biological sciences during his eleven years at Yale. “The functional unit for biology is now the entire university, stretching from Science Hill to the Medical School,” he said, with more than 300 biology labs currently conducting research at Yale. “We now have a fabulous array of interdepartmental biology programs that coordinate their admissions, their courses, and their research.”

President Levin called this “A great time for the biological sciences at Yale,” pointing to new facilities like the Anlyan Center and the Amistad Building at the Medical School, and a 20-year project to provide first rate facilities on Science Hill, beginning with the Environmental Sciences Center and Chemistry Research Building. “The key next step is to construct a new biology building, so Kline Biology Tower will be available as swing space while other buildings on Science Hill are renovated,” he said. “It will happen, but economic constraints have kept it from happening as quickly as we'd like.”

President Levin explained the importance of the recent acquisition of West Campus, 136 acres formerly owned by Bayer Pharmaceuticals. “When you’re a landlocked university in the middle of a city, you have nowhere to expand. This space, only seven miles from campus, came with top-quality labs that will be used for interdisciplinary biological sciences research, chemical biology, genomics and cancer research.”

Dean Alpern pointed out to the guests that “At any one time, we have almost the same number of graduate students as medical students at the School of Medicine. If you're in the biological sciences, whether at the Medical School or on Science Hill, you feel you’re in one program.”

Two keynote speakers then put the biological sciences at Yale into historical perspective, one looking at main campus, the other, at the Medical School.

“Because biological research is a vast scientific enterprise today that attracts a larger group of scientists than any other, it may come as a surprise to you that biology was the last of major sciences to be integrated into the Yale curriculum,” said Peter Moore (BS 1961), the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry. He traced the intertwined histories of Yale College, founded in 1701, and the independent Sheffield Scientific School, established in 1846 as Yale School of Applied Chemistry. “An observer in 1900 would have been astonished to discover two undergraduate programs as different as the programs run by Yale College and Sheffield,” he said. The College had courses in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and other subjects that harkened back to the medieval university, but didn’t teach most of the sciences or other subjects common to undergraduate institutions today, such as English literature. Those were taught at the Sheffield School. Slowly, over the 30 years following World War I, Sheffield's departments and faculty were merged into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the professional schools.

Moore traced the evolution of subdisciplines within biology that joined and separated in various combinations over the years. Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, in particular, merged and split more than once and, Moore said, “I have little doubt that in coming years they will be reunited. Fission and fusion are constants in biology departments in all universities!” Bringing his remarks up to the present, he said, “Now, we are all molecular biologists, and that may trigger the next major reorganization of the biological sciences.”

In the second keynote address, Richard Lifton, the Sterling Professor of Genetics and professor of Internal Medicine and Nephrology, spoke about the history of the Medical School, established in 1811. “The Medical School started as a trade school, developing new physicians and training them well, and over the years, basic science and research became more prominent.” Lifton presented a dazzling progression of highlights and breakthroughs generated by Yale Medical School faculty in pharmacology, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, immunobiology, and other fields. He gave a whirlwind tour of current scientific research and pointed to new directions it was likely to take in cellular neuroscience, neurodegeneration and repair, cancer biology, microbial diversity and more – both at the Medical School and on West Campus.

The weekend was filled with graduate student poster sessions, social events, and panels on “Evolution and Biodiversity”; “New Directions for Cellular and Molecular Biology”; “Biological Sciences in the Private Sector”; and “Scientific Publications: Present and Future.” Panelists included ground-breaking researchers, scientist-entrepreneurs whose discoveries are transforming medicine, and the CEOs of major scientific publishers who are facing the challenges of electronic communications.

One highlight was a talk by Nobel Laureate Thomas Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry, who spoke about his work in structural biology, tracing the way “DNA makes DNA makes RNA makes protein.” He showed dazzling color animations of protein synthesis by ribosomes, saying “It’s like a movie: you take pictures of the different states of the process and put them together to see how the process runs.” His presentation was part of the panel titled “New Directions for Cellular and Molecular Biology.” Some of the speakers shared personal stories, along with descriptions of their professional work.

Susan Baserga (BS, MD/PhD 1988, Genetics) joked that she’s “bluer than blue.” She came to Yale in 1976 as an undergraduate biology major. “I never thought I’d be here 36 years later. I am a true product of Yale, and the mentoring that I’ve gotten – and continue to get – has made me who I am,” she said.

For the past fifteen years her lab has explored the machinery that makes ribosomes including new work on human disorders linked to problems with ribosome assembly.

Another panelist, Rebecca Burdine (PhD 1997, Cell Biology), grew up in Kentucky and “thought I’d be a vet and take care of horses for the rest of my life. I went to Western Kentucky University, which had a good biology department. After spending a night in a barn in the freezing rain trying to save a mare and her foal, I decided I wanted to be a molecular biologist.” When she came for her Yale interview, she loved what she saw. “Everyone here was so smart, so talented, doing such interesting things. I wanted to be here so badly. When the call came telling me I’d been accepted into the program, I jumped at offer.” In Michael Stern's lab, Burdine “fell in love with science, with his extraordinary mentoring, and with genetics.” She studied the development of the worm C. elegans and now studies zebra fish in her own lab at Princeton, working on how animals develop asymmetrically – in the case of humans, with the heart on the left, the liver on the right. This has direct implications in the genetic origins of kidney diseases and other problems. Burdine showed a photo of her family and shared that she has a personal stake in genetic research: her beautiful daughter Sophie was born with a rare genetic condition called Angelman Syndrome. To promote research to find a cure, she established the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics.

The panel on Evolution and Biodiversity featured Tom Lovejoy of the Heinz Center for Sciences, Economics and the Environment. Lovejoy coined the term “biodiversity” and now works on the impact of climate change on life on earth. He cautioned that the two-degree Celsius rise in the surface temperature of the earth forecast to occur by the end of the century will be too much for many living systems, including conifers and corals, to deal with. Hopefully, he predicted that reforestation has the capacity to mitigate some of the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Nora Besansky of the University of Notre Dame started her career working on malaria in the Yale Biology Department. Her studies of the genomes of the mosquitoes carrying malaria offer hope for understanding the biology well enough to devise effective preventive measures. Sterling Professor of Ecology and Evolution Michael Donoghue shared his ever-more-detailed work on the construction of phylogenetic trees of the 55,000 known plant species. He recounted examples of the rapid evolution of modern plants, such as the transition of a daisy into a woody plant when confined to an island environment.

Kevin Collins and alumna

Postdoctoral fellow Kevin Collins (MB&B) discusses his research on muscle electrical excitability in C. elegans with a visiting alumna.

Jeffrey Settleman (PhD 1989, Genetics), senior director of research for the Discovery Oncology division of Genentech, San Francisco, was a member of the panel focused on “Biological Sciences in the Private Sector.” After thesis research with Dan DiMaio in the Department of Genetics and a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, he joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He continued to study the basic signaling mechanisms in model organisms like fruit flies and worms, but in 2003 “something happened that profoundly changed my research. Tom Lynch, then at Massachusetts General Hospital [now director of Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven Hospital], came to me and said, ‘We’re treating patients and seeing tumors melt away.’ We looked at the genome of patients who responded to the treatment and those who didn’t,” and found significant differences. The miraculous therapy was only a temporary fix, but Settleman decided to put all his energy into cancer research from then on. Two years ago, Genentech offered him a position that would allow him “to move to the battlefront in the war against cancer. Our goal is to discover new cancer drugs.” Two daunting challenges stand in his way: successfully personalizing treatment based on how individual patients respond to oncology drugs, and defeating the cancer cells’ acquired resistance. “The tumor cell is a wily, crafty beast,” he said. “Tumors grow back.”

Jonathan Rothberg (PhD 1991, MCDB), founding CEO and chairman of Ion Torrent as well as several other companies, including RainDance Technologies and CuraGen Corporation, majored in chemical engineering in college and came to Yale to apply his engineering skills to study molecular biology. He “spent the next six years sequencing 10,000 letters of the genome for Drosophila for the genome SLIT. I though: ‘My god, there must be a better way to do this!’” He founded CuraGen “in the middle of a bubble. I was CEO of a public company whose market share exceeded the market share of American Airlines. We were able to do good science, but didn’t have the resources to go from that to drugs...”

“In 1999, I thought I was on top of the world. Then my son was born, and he was having trouble breathing. At that point, I realized that I didn’t care all that much about the genome of the human species in general. I just cared about my son’s genome, how we could take care of him, what was wrong with him.” During the crisis (which ended happily), “I had a moment when I realized we were doing it wrong. We needed to think small, not big, and operate like the semiconductor industry, putting the genome sequencing on a substrate. I spent the next two weeks drafting patent applications to break up the genome, put it in droplets in an emulsion, and miniaturize the technique.” His inspiration worked, and rapid gene sequencing became a reality, changing research world-wide. Over the next years, his company figured out what was killing honey bees, sequenced the genome of a prehistoric cave bear and Neanderthal man, and when they were ready to speed-sequence the first human being’s genome, they chose geneticist James Watson.” His new company, IonTorrent, invented an even faster method to sequence genomes.

During the Q&A he commented, “I never started a company with the goal of making money. I always did it because I wanted to change the lives of people, people we love or might love in the future.” To current students who were considering an entrepreneurial career, he said: “If you like working with three to five people, can live with no life raft, and are willing to work 90 hours a week, you can start a company. But if you want to make a drug or do a big project, it’s better to work for a big company.”

Larry Gold (BS 1963, MCDB), chairman and CEO of SomaLogic in Boulder, Colorado, was the third member of the Private Sector panel. He came to Yale at age 17, intending to join the Whiffenpoofs and become a pro-golfer. When neither worked out, he decided to be a geneticist. “I started as a faculty member,” he said, but “eventually I gave up tenure. I moved from academic science into the private sector. In my entire academic career, I probably spent $8 to 10 million on research. In the time I’ve been involved with private companies, I’ve raised about $1 billion for research projects.” His company made the first drug that combats macular degeneration, and he’s now working on a “wellness chip” designed to enumerate all of the proteins in an individual’s blood. This former academician says, “I’m now completely wed to the notion of doing real science in a non-academic setting. If you have a big problem that you can’t do in an academic setting, go and work on it in the private sector,” he advised.

The Sunday morning panel on Scientific Publications Present and Future brought together two Yale doctoral students from the 1990s who are now the CEOs of prominent publishing houses. Annette Thomas shared her transition from a graduate student with Pietro DeCamilli to a rookie scientific editor at Nature to her present position as CEO of Macmillan Publishers, the parent company of the Nature publishing group. Her innovative ideas led to two new journals and increasing leadership responsibility. Emilie Marcus described an intimidating initial interview at Cell Press (similar to Annette’s at Nature) that convinced her that she wanted to deal with the range of science that one could only experience in publishing. Like Annette she rapidly rose to leadership of her company. The other panel members, Pietro De Camilli and Tom Pollard, contrasted the editorial practices and business plans of journals owned by scientific societies. The whole panel responded to questions about open access to scientific papers and the future of electronic publications.