Charles Sherr on CSHL Watson School of Biological Sciences
  Charles Sherr     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2002

The program is new and experimental. It’s been very successful in the first couple of years. I’ve met a few students at meetings elsewhere and had a chance to speak with them. They’re all selected for being not only bright, but also interesting. Jim likes peculiar people. Some of the students are quite peculiar. But, you know, maybe that goes along with being very bright. And I think that people who select the Watson School, very few, you know they have six or seven or five; it’s not very many. I mean of course you have other kids coming in from Stonybrook, so the graduate program is a lot larger. But I think this initiative has changed Cold Spring Harbor and then will continue to evolve to be more of a university atmosphere. Whether they can retain the kind of selectivity that they have at the moment is, of course, an interesting question as the lab grows. I mean will it always have a very small, dedicated effort with a lot of student faculty contact or will they expand that and become more ordinary? It’s very hard to know. … I think that it’s a noble idea that you can get your Ph.D. in four years. I mean I got two degrees in six years, so I know you can do it. Well that was the way that program was designed. Can we get you two degrees in six years? So I certainly would have gotten my Ph.D. degree within probably four years time if I had not been doing medicine as well. There were a lot of crossover courses, so there was a simplification there. But in terms of lab research and publishing and so on which is really what I think is the experience of getting a Ph.D., yeah, I think you can do it in four years. And I think people should not be encouraged to be students forever. And I also think that people who can’t do this should be discouraged early in their career. Because many graduate schools ultimately give Ph.D. degrees to people who have been there forever. And then they go through endless postdocs and they get to be well into their forties before they realize they have no business being in science and are looking around for another career. And I think that we as mentors generally should be more—what is the word? We should have higher expectations and we should communicate those expectations. And if we sense that people really don’t have what it takes to be a scientist, I think it’s our obligation to let them know and also to tell them that a Ph.D. in science is useful, but you don’t have to necessarily do “discovery science.” You know, some people teach, some people do patent law, some people do—who knows what. I mean there are many noble things to do with one’s life—you don’t have to be discovery science. And I think a very small percentage of people who get Ph.D.’s are going to make discovery and there’s a very small subset that are going to be really engaged in academic research. So some selectivity all the way through the process, which is natural, can also be facilitated by those of us who are mentors. And at a school like this where at least at the moment, you know, they’re highly selective in admission and they’re pushing people to get through. I think that’s a reasonable formula. We’ll see if it works, but it’s too early to know.

Charles Sherr earned his joint M.D./Ph.D. degree from New York University in 1973. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator based at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. His work focuses on retroviral oncogenes, growth factors and their receptors, and cell cycle control. In 1991, Sherr's laboratory discovered the mammalian D-type G1 cyclins and went on to identify the cyclin-dependent kinases with which they associate, as well as a series of polypeptide inhibitors that negatively regulate their activities.

Sherr is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has won numerous awards and is the author of more than 235 scientific articles. He joined the National Cancer Institute in 1973, becoming a member of the NIH staff in 1975 and head of the viral pathology section, Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention, in 1977. In 1983, he relocated to St. Jude. Sherr is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.