Herr & Noller on CSHL and the Watson School of Biological Sciences
  Herr & Noller     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2001

Harry Noller: What I know about it [the Watson School of Biological Sciences] is simply what I’ve heard from Winship about it and it sounds like a great thing. A very elite, small program where you get really the best students and then you pamper them and trust them to do great things. I mean, I was talking with Bruce and Winship about this the other day, and saying, “I’m not sure I would be this easy on them. They get out in four years, period, and you give them all this support and freedom and they don’t have to publish any papers, and so on.”

Harry Noller: Well, they defended it; and they said, “Oh, the postdoc is where you go and publish papers,” and so on. I’m more of a hard-ass probably, if you can imagine that, than Winship. Winship Herr: Well, you see now, it’s interesting because I think you’re getting it wrong about the issue of lack of publications. You have to generate a body of original work. What I think is confused here is that, for example, we have so many students from Stony Brook and there are graduate programs there where the student cannot receive a Ph.D. until after they’ve had a first author publication.

Harry Noller: Well, I disagree with that.

Winship Herr: So, and what we feel is that’s taking the judgment of the science out of the hands of our own institution that can judge the students [and giving that power] to anonymous reviewers in a forum that might not be suitable. So we feel that—and, ultimately, I also feel that the thesis is a publication of sorts, available to other people of interest and in the library, on microfilm or whatever, and that is a publication. So, we’re not saying you don’t have to do original research; the publication thing is simply, we don’t want to—you know, I have colleagues…

Harry Noller: I was just—just the four-year thing, where—this sort of feeling of an entitlement. The student comes in thinking, “I’m out in four years no matter what I do.”

Winship Herr: No. That’s not the case. The case—and this is, I was actually interested [when] you said you got through in four and a half years. Were you a full year in MRC? Harry Noller: Yeah.

Winship Herr: Because I was trying to add up. Because you graduated from college in ‘59.

Harry Noller: ‘60. I took a year off. ‘61-’65. November.

Winship Herr: So that’s four years.

Harry Noller: A little bit over four years.

Winship Herr: That’s four years. That’s four years. Four years and two months. How can it be? You know I think this actually comes down to something that we were going to touch on earlier about the issue that now you can generate so much data. Because, how can it be that in your time, everybody could get their degree in roughly four years, and all of a sudden, now it’s taking six or seven? I mean, there something’s that has changed. I think part of what changed is that it’s so easy to generate data, that people are just spending more time producing more—I mean how many publications did you have from your thesis?

Harry Noller: Three.

Winship Herr: You know, I don’t know—Nowadays—well I don’t know. I don’t think I actually know the explanation. But I think what we’re trying to say is we’ve made the emphasis on size of contribution of original research too much of the process. I mean, I think there’s many things. There’s learning how to ask questions; there’s learning how to communicate your results. Jan, for example, is a professor in our exposition and ethics course, where we teach them how to write and to give talks and such. And there are too much, too many experiments that have to be added up before people are getting out. It’s the only way I can explain it.

Harry Noller: I agree. I would love to have students that come in and get the job done and get out. Winship Herr: That’s part of it, actually. You see, I meet with the students that have been in school for a year and a half. For tea, for example; we have a dean’s tea. I’ll say to them, “What they are thinking about for your postdoc?” You know, I think students get intellectually lazy. They get comfortable in a state of mind and they don’t view it as I’m arriving and I’m leaving. It’s like it becomes a segment of their life and then there are three months before writing their thesis [and] they’re going “I have to choose a postdoc!” You should be thinking about your postdoc from day one. Because the whole point, a big part of graduate school, is becoming a consumer of science. [You move from] where you’re not an educated consumer to an educated one during the process of your graduate career. Where you’re learning to ask the important questions and one of the most important things to do in your career, like you did, as – maybe as a second step – is as a post doc is to choose that important question that you’re going to devote a long time to. You can’t do it as a graduate student; you simply don’t know. But the postdoc is where you should do it. And so you should be going to seminars all the time you’re a graduate student, thinking about “Ah, is that what I want to devote my—is that the question I really want to ask?” and then be thinking about this. A lot of it is just getting them to be thinking about issues and not getting comfortable with nine to five.

Harry Noller: We’re probably agreeing a lot more than it sounds. I was just going to say—what I think of as—to me a Ph.D. project is to come in and set up a system of some kind, an assay, or a method or something, and then use that to answer some questions. Get the method working, and now use it to turn the crank on a problem with it, and then write it up.

Winship Herr: Absolutely.

Harry Noller: That’s what I think my students have all done.

Winship Herr: I don’t think Seth Stern was in your lab much more than four years.

Harry Noller: It might have been three. He came in and he and Danesh [Moazed] worked out the primer extension modification method and then they—Seth used it to map the proteins along with Ted Powers, and Danesh did tRNA and the functional stuff, antibiotics… And then Seth said, “Okay.” It was ridiculous, I mean…talk about a slave driver! I said to Seth, “Why don’t you figure out the structure of 30S subunit using biochemistry?” And I said to Danesh, “Why don’t you figure how the ribosome works using biochemistry?” And, boy, They both came pretty close to doing it. Ans Seth—so, the idea was to use the neutron map for the positions of the proteins, which was coming out of Peter Moore’s lab. In fact, Venki Ramakrishnan did some of that. And if we knew where the proteins were contacting ribosomal RNA, we could then fold the RNA up in three dimensions and have a model for the three-dimensional structure. So Seth did all the footprinting after working out the method and then he worked out how to model the RNA in the computer, which was a huge task, which he did very quickly and then came out with the model for the three dimensional structure. I think he did it in just over three years.

Winship Herr: So, I think it can be done…

Harry Noller: He was in there at seven o’clock every morning.

Winship Herr: It’s not an entitlement.

Winship Herr, director of the University of Lausanne School of Biology and member of EMBO. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of California in 1974 and Ph.D. for studies on recombinant retroviruses in leukemogenic mice with Walter Gilbert from Harvard University in 1982. He completed his postdoctoral research studies in Cambridge (England) with Frederick Sanger and with Joe Sambrook in Cold Spring Harbor. After that he joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory faculty in 1984. From 1994 till 2002 he was an assistant director of the Laboratory and founding dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences from 1998 till 2004. He is a professor of the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne.

Winship Herr is a former National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow, Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellow, and Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Biological Sciences.

Harry Noller, is best known for his work on on ribosomal RNA structure and function, currently the director of the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for the Molecular Biology of RNA. He received his B.S. in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Oregon.

He received the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Sciences together with Drs. Moore and Steitz for their research on the ribosome. Harry Noller has been awarded Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize granted by the Paul Ehrlich Foundation. He is a member of National Academy of Science, RNA Society and American Academy of Art and Science.