Recorded: 17 Jan 2003
I think it was actually a particularly difficult time at Cold Spring Harbor. Most people, in fact, virtually everybody there was either working on adenovirus or SV40 and the really interesting problems in those viruses had tended to condense down into a relatively small number so it did mean that people were competing with each other a little bit here and there. And that was both positive and negative I think. I mean there was clearly a lot of pressure on people to perform and if you’re competing with someone in the nearly corridor then of course that makes things difficult when really the ideal situation is that people collaborate and maximize the benefits of collective brains.
So I think that was actually a situation which existed at that time and really resolved itself fairly shortly after I left in 1978 because the yeast group was starting to get going. The first efforts into neurobiology had happened perhaps a little prematurely owing great insight of Watson’s to see that as an important area. But at the time it was a little bit early actually to do very much. Of course when the second big group of neurobiology got going it then did fantastic things but still things were starting to expand a little bit just at the time that I was leaving. And I think that that actually relieved a lot of this incredible pressure on people to compete with each other.
So it was a very intense atmosphere, I think partly the physical location of Cold Spring Harbor in its own little community. Most people living on the grounds. Most of the social life was with other people at the lab. So many people and come from somewhere else and didn’t really have any particular social or family connections in the area. So it was very intensive from that point of view.
And in many respects your standing as a person related absolutely directly to your success in the lab so if things were going badly you were a little bit of a non-person if things were going well, you were an important person, but of course competition as well. So it was very infesting to sort of see the interactions of people from that point of view.
But of course an incredibly exciting place to work just because there were a lot of bright people there. There were so many people coming through all the time, not just for the meetings but at all other times of the year there were special presentation, intensive workshops on areas thought to be of interest several times while I was there. So—with really good guest speakers coming in so it was—as a place to go for a postdoctoral education it really would be hard to imagine a better place.
Merilyn Sleigh is a pharmacologist, molecular biologist and dean in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of New South Wales. After completing her Ph.D. at the University of Sydney in pharmacology and another PhD in molecular biology at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), she came to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to work under Joe Sambrook as a postdoctoral fellow researching the protein production of SV40. She returned to CSIRO, establishing one of the first laboratories in Australia using genetic engineering approaches to study influenza virus structure, evolution and gene regulation. She has become involved in developing the biotechnological industry in Australia. Sleigh is founding director of the Australian Biotechnology Association and is currently Chief Executive of EvoGenix, a start-up biotechnology company located in Australia.