Richard Burgess on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: Past, Present, and Future
  Richard Burgess     Biography    
Recorded: 23 Apr 2001

It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. That’s one of the reasons why I like to come here every year. It’s amazing how much building is going on and how much renovation is going on. It’s a really fine facility. And the grounds—everything is spectacular, in my opinion. I’ve always thought of Cold Spring Harbor – if I had to rank its importance in various areas – the most important thing it has done over the years is the courses. The second most important thing is the meetings and the third most important thing is the research, maybe cause I’m not as familiar with the research. But there are many fine research institutions around the world—and this is one of them, but it’s not so special in that regard, I don’t think, what’s really important is the courses and the meetings because there aren’t that many meetings to go to—places that have that tradition. And in particular, the courses, because over the years—I don’t know how many years the phage course went on; the yeast course; now there must be over twenty different courses. They come into being because there’s a need for cutting edge training, high level training. They attract excellent people to be instructors-in-assistance. People come here—I mean, I think for the people who take my course—it sometimes changes their whole career direction, now they actually can think and use protein biochemistry in their research group, whereas before they didn’t know enough to do it effectively. So I think that—just in the protein course, we have already trained 176 students from all around the world. The phage course—it must be thousands, and the same thing is true of many of the other courses.

I think the impact of this lab—its the biggest impact has been on the people that it’s trained who have come back and trained other people. Sort of the multiplication effect. Of course the meetings have always been a place to bring the very best scientists in a field together for a pretty intense time to share ideas, to argue about issues, and hopefully at the end of that time, come out with a better general understanding about that topic. To me those have been more influential in the long run than the research, even though the research is also excellent.

…One of the other reasons I feel I have a connection here not only is Jim Watson, but also many of the people that were in his lab have actually spent time here. Like Ray Gesteland, who was a graduate student in his lab, whose lab bench I inherited when Ray got his Ph.D. Ray then went to Geneva, Switzerland and then he came to Cold Spring Harbor and he was here for a long time. So every time I came here I could see Ray, and Joe Sambrook. Many of the people who are here were people that I knew actually from before, it provided some continuity. And now, people like Winship Herr and Nuria Hernandez have worked in the same area of eukaryotic transcription that I work in, so when I work here I always have a chance to talk to them. Over the years you build ties and it’s fun to come back. One of my favorite things is to come and walk on the beach.

Well, I don’t know. It’s clearly got much better facilities than it used to. I remember living one summer in 1969 in the basement of the firehouse and having it be absolutely ramshackle. Somebody’s bathtub had fallen through the floor into the floor below six months beforehand. The place was really rundown. Now it’s just beautiful. It’s clear that a huge amount of money has been raised—and this is Jim’s strength. It seems to me in the most recent years to raise money for Cold Spring Harbor: For the buildings, for the research, for the education, for the art, it’s amazing. So given the situation now and with the direction that it has, I am sure that it will be a very strong research place and a growingly important graduate training place. But I still think it will always be thought of as the place where the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium is and where the courses are. I think that’s the heritage it has now, in my opinion, and that’s the place where it’ll be fifty years from now. As long as it keeps its courses and its meetings at the forefront, not just me-too but doing the stuff at the beginning not later. They do stop courses when the people really know how to do it; they don’t teach the course anymore. And they find another subject that needs a first rate training program for people who really want to learn how to do it.

Richard Burgess is a geneticist who has been an important figure in cancer, microbial, and molecular research. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University under Jim Watson in 1969 and went on to work with Alfred Tissieres at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

He is currently researching RNA polymerases, monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), molecular genetics, computer-based sequence and structure analysis, and biochemistry at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Reaearch at the University of Wisconsin.