Tom Maniatis on Bruce Stillman: Becoming Director of CSHL
  Tom Maniatis     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Mar 2003

I was on the board of trustees at Cold Spring Harbor for six years. And during that time I was asked to chair the committee to recruit a new director. And Jim had decided that he was going to step back and become president and he wanted somebody to be the full time director of the lab.

And so we put together a list of people and these were very well known people—leaders in their fields. And we began to talk to them about the possibility and the first question they would ask is, well, what is Jim’s role going to be in this? And when it became clear that Jim was going to be around they got cold feet because no one at that time wanted to get into a situation where they weren’t in complete control and they felt that they would always be second guessed by Jim and if, when the chips were down, Jim would make the decision.

And so, Sambrook was on the committee. And I had a very candid conversation with Sambrook about this. And he unfortunately went to Jim and told him. And so I got a phone call from Jim. He was really angry. And he said, “What do you want me to do? Die? Is that the only way you think you can find a director?” And he was, you know, and actually it was shortly after that we stopped trying.

And then suddenly out of the blue came the idea of Bruce [Stillman]. And I think most people at the time were worried. They thought that, you know, Bruce did not have the scientific stature or presence to be a real leader. You know, he was not just, I mean he was young, you know. It was more that than anything. But it seemed like it would work, that Bruce was willing to do it, Jim was enthusiastic, so it seemed okay.

And actually it’s turned out better than anyone could have imagined. There’s no question at the beginning that Jim was constantly looking over Bruce’s shoulder. But as Jim has evolved so has Bruce and their relationship. And now it’s clear that Bruce is pretty much in complete control of things. And he’s doing a great job. He’s even, in spite of his rather, how should I say, quiet personality. He has established a rapport with the board members and with the community and he’s effectively working on fund-raising, an area that I think most people were worried about. So, you know, he stepped up into the role and he’s doing a great job. And so I think again Jim was right. He—most people disagreed with that decision, but in the end it worked out perfectly because what it did it provided a transition for the lab from Jim to somebody new. And it couldn’t have been done it they had hired some of the people that they were trying to hire before. It would have been an abrupt transition. In a sense it could have changed the legacy of Jim and this way I think it worked out.

Tom Maniatis, molecular biologist, is a leader in the field of recombinant DNA. At Vanderbilt University he completed his Ph.D. studying DNA wide-angle scattering. He became a postdoctoral fellow and professor at Harvard University and met Jim Watson just before he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

While Maniatis was beginning experimentation with cDNA cloning and gene regulation of higher cells, the controversy over recombinant DNA in Cambridge stunted his progression. Watson offered Maniatis a position at CSHL where he could work more efficiently to understand the methods of recombinant DNA. At CSHL, Maniatis completed full-length synthesis of double stranded DNA and actual cloning of cDNA.

He is currently a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University studying the mechanisms involved in the regulation of RNA transciption and pre-messenger RNA splicing. He studies transcription to understand how eukaryotic genes are activated by viral infection and extracellular signals.