by Maxine F. Singer
December 1, 2005
Thank everyone…the scientific staff, trustees, family and friends for their contributions to this building and for honoring me so wonderfully with that bold if immodest lettering above the front door.
While it is certainly a great pleasure for me to see my name up there, it will ultimately be of minor significance. The true reason for this building is not to honor me but to assure that the bold Carnegie approach to science is sustained within these wonderful spaces through research and the training of generations of new scientists. The department’s people, leadership, and future are what will make the building an icon for scientific excellence, not the copper and brick and hanging artichoke lights, beautiful as they are. It is the science that will say the most profound thank you to everyone.
Michael Gellert, current chair of the board of trustees, told me that he would welcome, this evening, a reprise of an informal talk I gave at Las Campanas years ago during one of the trustee trips to that amazing place. Apologies Mike, but I can’t recall all of it nor can I find the brief notes I scribbled on the mountain. I do remember that I tried to explain why Carnegie research in the various departments has a coherent thread of approach and substance, no matter how disparate and unplanned they may seem. And I think that I emphasized that history, the history of the cosmos and of life on Earth, although not always acknowledged, is at the core of Carnegie science.
All Carnegie science strives to understand our origins, place, and fate in the vast universe and small planet that gave us birth. There is an intimate connection between the astrophysics done in Pasadena and Las Campanas, and the earth and planetary research we find at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and the Geophysical Lab. The work of the Department of Global Ecology, which concerns the present state and changing dynamics of Earth, rests on what is learned by seismologists, geochemists, and geophysicists about Earth processes and the history of the planet. So too does astrobiology, which is meaningless unless we are aware of what the Earth and other planets were like in the distant past. After all, life began and did most of its evolving…about 3.5 billion years worth… on a very different planet with a different atmosphere. And while the plant biologists and the developmental biologists here in this department may seem far removed from the others, everything they study is a consequence of the interaction of living things with the changing Earth environment over billions of years. Fish, for example, have been swimming in Earth’s waters for perhaps 400 million years, long before they found their new home on the ground floor of this building. Flies first appear in the fossil record about 250 million years ago. The developmental processes studied here reflect the history of this evolution.
The following words ring contemporary bells, but they are from the president’s yearbook essay for 1961, the year that this department moved into its then new, now abandoned building. The author was President Caryl Haskins.
An image of science as a highly methodical operation is growing in the mind of the public. But it is an image of organization---of organized groups whose effort is directed with great precision toward some common objectives of public importance. Sometimes the effort is of formidable size...as in the “conquest” of space. More often the objectives are of a more limited nature, as in the scientific approach to problems of public health or defense…Such an image is appealing to people who have readily adopted large-scale organization in economic and technological fields with brilliant success. Moreover, the image is abetted by the complexity and the enormity of modern instruments of science…
The program of [this] Institution…however, reflects a different kind of scientific structure. The Institution is organized, to be sure. But the primary objective of its organization is the support of the uncommitted individual scientist; it is not organized for the direction or even the coordination of research workers.
Haskins’ description of large, organized scientific efforts is even more apt today. And such efforts, including for example, the genome sequencing projects, have been fruitful and help inform the research here. But the idea that still drives all Carnegie research…what is fashionable now to call a vision, is not “a common objective of public importance” or to solve the scientific questions that contemporary research has already defined. It is rather to establish the questions for the future: To open scientific stories, not to close them: To attend to the first line of the story….”Once upon a time,” not the last, when the prince kisses the sleeping princess and they live happily ever after.
Even the design of the space in this building speaks to this idea…what Director Allan Spradling likes to call the Carnegie style…and to how the Institution’s history has in the past and continues now to shape Carnegie’s present and the future.
How is this idea built into this building? First of all, the building was designed to accommodate a staff that is more or less the size of the present group; substantial growth is not on the agenda. There are huge benefits to being small including flexibility, minimal bureaucracy, and most important the engagement of each scientist in the work of the others. All the major instruments…among them confocal microscopes, centrifuges…are placed in common spaces accessible to all. None are the private preserve of particular investigators. There are no 5000 square foot labs to accommodate huge research groups driven by the ideas and ambitions of a senior leader who is rarely seen at the bench or even in the lab; all the Staff Members from the newest to the most senior have the same status, the same amount of space and a small office, and spend time at the bench. Everyone has the equivalent of a ‘corner office’ with a view to the wooded surroundings so remarkable in the middle of a city and well-developed university campus.
A building and a special kind of scientist are not enough to sustain the Carnegie style. That depends on leadership, departmental and institutional leadership including trustees who know that counting one year’s worth of publications or citation statistics or the number of grants or of patents cannot reliably evaluate research that opens scientific stories. Leadership that will take risks with institutional funds when the very conservative government funding processes decline to fund an interesting idea. Leadership that is prepared to rejoice in success but is also prepared for failure…for finding even after years of work, and a good pile of money, that there is, after all, no story.
Special admiration is due to the Carnegie board of trustees and its chairs for decades of such leadership. I cannot begin to convey how much help and support I had from chairmen Dick Heckert and Tom Urban during my time as president. And I know that Mike Gellert is similarly engaged with Dick Meserve.
So, once upon a time, in 1914 to give the time a date, Franklin Mall convinced the trustees that it was time to learn more about human embryonic development. It was the birth of this department. He brought to Carnegie his own collection of human embryos obtained from spontaneous abortions and cadavers. The embryos amassed and studied by Mall and those who followed was the largest collection of human embryo specimens in the world. Now, housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, it remains a resource for those studying human embryology. The 23 stages of early human development defined in this department early in the last century, remain the framework for the study of human embryos. Stage 1 is the fertilized egg and at stage 23, about 8 weeks later, the embryo has many features characteristic of a human. Stage 3 is the now well-known blastocyst, the source of human embryonic stem cells.
But this morphological history of early human development, like most great scientific achievements, raised more questions than it answered. Scientists and physicians wanted to know more about the events leading up to ovulation, the process of fertilization, and then most mysterious, how the single fertilized cell could, on its own, multiply and form arms, fingers, legs, toes, backbone, ears, eyes, and all the other structures visible by Stage 23.
So, once upon a time, in 1925, department director George Streeter convinced President John Merriam and the trustees that the very large expense entailed in establishing a living, breeding monkey colony was worth it. This amounted to $10,000 or 18 percent of the department budget in 1926. Monkeys were a new kind of model organism and challenging to maintain compared to the flies and rodents already being investigated. A great number of the fundamental aspects of human reproduction that are now common knowledge were originally revealed by work with the Carnegie monkey colony including knowledge of the very earliest embryos. Primates were essential to this because only primates have a menstrual cycle associated with ovulation allowing, among other things, the precise determination of the age and morphology of the earliest embryos.
My own first introduction to the Carnegie Institution came in 1951, my junior year in college, when my wonderful embryology professor, Robert Enders, assigned, as a textbook, a monograph entitled Embryology of the Rhesus Monkey, Collected papers from the Contributions to Embryology published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. That book is still on my shelves. Enders spent the school year at Swarthmore College, but his summers at the Department, then still in the old, old labs at Hopkins Medical School where it had been since 1914. He talked of the place as if it were heaven on earth and its faculty as gods. I was in that seminar under special dispensation both from Enders, who was suspicious of a student who was a chemistry major, and from the Chemistry Department, which was unhappy that I would not obey its rule and study physics not biology as my second seminar. George Corner, then director of this department soon recognized, as Enders did not, that to expand understanding of embryonic development, the department’s focus would have to change from anatomy and morphology and the monkey colony, to encompass experimental embryology and biochemistry which by then had developed tools that made such studies possible.
Enders would, I think, have had a tough time admitting publicly that he was secretly proud of the fact that this lowly chemistry major now has her name on the department’s new building.
So, when it came time to appoint a new department director in early 1956, Caryl Haskins recruited Jim Ebert. Ebert was an experimental embryologist, who was charged with keeping the department at the forefront, not the rear guard of embryology. Ebert saw to it that the department could move, in 1961, from Hopkins Medical School to a new, state-of-the-art research building here on the Homewood campus. That move symbolized a change from the research that had strong and obvious medical implications for reproductive medicine to an effort to understand the fundamental processes underlying development. It was a bold and prescient change and one that placed the department in the vanguard of one of the greatest revolutions in the history of biology.
Once upon a time, embryologists and geneticists suspected that somehow, in ways they could not fathom, their two sciences were related. By 1914, when the Carnegie Institution began funding his work, Thomas Hunt Morgan, had established the chromosomal theory of inheritance. Morgan, a Hopkins Ph.D., had started his scientific life as an invertebrate embryologist working with sea spiders. But by 1914 his entire attention was on fly genetics, a field he founded. In three years time, Morgan’s experiments had changed him from a serious skeptic about Mendel’s concepts to their foremost proponent. Even as a skeptic about Mendel, however, Morgan had, from his earliest days in research, realized that inherited information had to be responsible for the development of a complex organism from a single cell, the fertilized egg. Finally, in 1934 he wrote a book entitled Embryology and Genetics. But when a young French embryologist, Boris Ephrussi, read the book he was bold enough to tell the grand old man…by then a Nobel laureate…that the title was misleading. The book did not fulfill Morgan’s dream or the title’s promise to bridge the gap between embryology and genetics. In fact, it could not have bridged that gap as genetics was then an abstract science; no one knew what genes were made of or how they worked. Even more confounding, no one could figure out experiments that might be illuminating. Those organisms that were used as models for embryology…monkeys, chickens, a few invertebrates were not good for genetic analysis. And the flies, plants, and even some rodents that were most amenable to genetic analysis were not ideal for embryology.
All that had changed by the time Ebert became department director. 1953 was the singular year when the structure of DNA was defined by Watson and Crick, and Al Hershey and Martha Chase, Carnegie scientists at Cold Spring Harbor, proved that genes are made of DNA. Biology developed swiftly after that. By 1960 the genetic code was being cracked. The flow of information in cells was known to go from DNA to RNA to protein and the outlines of how that happens had emerged. Scientists in France had demonstrated that the action of genes is a carefully regulated process. The time was ripe to begin a new story, one that would indeed bridge the gap between development and genetics.
So, once upon a time, in 1960, Jim Ebert brought Don Brown, a biochemist with experience in that fabled French lab, to the department. Nothing has been the same here since. Before long, Brown and Igor Dawid had identified a developmental change in the amount of DNA in frog eggs. The fruitful study of the role of genes during development had begun. And the DNA Brown and Dawid isolated was the first DNA from a complex organism to be cloned by recombinant DNA techniques.
This afternoon, during the building tour, you all learned from the current, talented staff of the department about the range of organisms and challenging developmental processes being studied here now. They are investigating processes that, in 1960 and even in 2000, seemed beyond reach. These highly imaginative scientists take risks and expect bold investment from the Institution. And, it is folly to ask where their work will take us.
DTM Staff Member Paul Butler spoke for all the Carnegie departments when he was asked what astronomers would learn by building huge new telescopes: if you knew what you were going to learn, there would be no need to build new telescopes; you build telescopes because of what you don’t know, not what you do know. Similarly, Allan Spradling, answered the question of where this department’s research is now headed by saying; “we are proud to say that we do not know.”
There is no question but that living this way in science is living on the edge. But Carnegie history tells us that it is the edge that consistently yields impacts way out of proportion to the Institution’s small size. And this is the reason why it is such a great joy to be associated with this building. The science will change, the scientists will change, but the Carnegie style promises fresh insights into the natural world and a huge impact on science and humanity.
Style matters. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago though in a very different context. My daughter Amy and I were walking down the main shopping street in Tel Aviv, where she lives. The local Israeli fashion industry is thriving and pricey. Israeli women are very fashion conscious. But to tell the truth, as I remarked to Amy, I don’t like any of the clothes or the way the women look. Amy agreed. And she then remarked it’s all about fashion but not about style.
That’s a remark to keep in mind when we think about Carnegie science.