Winship Herr on Interest in Starting a Graduate School at CSHL
  Winship Herr     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Jul 2004

Yeah. Actually, a lot of what happened in-between the November ’95 and the June ’97 meetings were for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory itself. I mean its one thing for Jim Watson to say, you know, we should have a graduate school, but a graduate school impacts and depends on every segment of the institution. We had to get on board the institution, all the people at the institution, around this idea of having a graduate school. You have to understand, in fact, there was considerable concern that a graduate school would not work at Cold Spring Harbor because the faculty had come specifically to a research institution. So why would they, all of a sudden, want to be involved in teaching graduate students if many of them had come for the purpose of research only?

Of course, one thing that helped is that many people had graduate students from Stony Brook. The other thing—so I did a number of things. One important issue was how dedicated would faculty be. So I sent a questionnaire around asking faculty how involved they would be. All the way from “Would you teach a course” to “Would you give a lecture” to “Would you mentor a graduate student.” And everybody said that they would mentor a graduate student, most people said they would give a lecture, and quite a few people said they’d be interested in giving a course also. So, that was part of it.

Part of it also was figuring out, would people come? I mean, what would be the point of setting up a graduate school if we wouldn’t get the caliber of student that we would want? Maybe students wouldn’t be interested to apply [they might think] Cold Spring Harbor that’s not a university.

One of things that had always been disappointing—I had been, in fact, director of our Undergraduate Research Program for ten years, from ’85 to ’95, at which point Michael Hengartner took it over. During that entire time that I was director of the Undergraduate Research Program, we had fantastic summer students who go the very best schools, right schools, none had ever ventured to come to Cold Spring Harbor through an arrangement with Stony Brook. They just weren’t interested in coming to Stony Brook to be able to study at Cold Spring Harbor. Here was a pool of students that we would love to have that we weren’t getting. One of the things I did was to poll former Undergraduate Research Program participants, asking them if we had had a graduate school would you have considered coming? I don’t know offhand right now the precise response, but this response was not very negative, okay? People said, yeah, that sounds interesting. So that was a very important part.

The other very important thing that we had to develop was, in fact, the support of the trustees. Now I was not involved in that element of the support of the trustees that involves getting funding for the school, which was masterminded by David Luke in phenomenal fashion. But I do remember, for example, a meeting that Bruce and I had in the Racker Room with scientific trustees, Eckard Wimmer, Joan Steitz, Shirley Tilghman [and] I believe also that Mike Wigler might have been at that meeting.

And at the time they were not impressed with the idea of a graduate program at Cold Spring Harbor Lab. I’m pretty sure it was Joan Steitz, but it might have been Shirley Tilghman who said, you have a perfect arrangement with Stony Brook. One of the problems with graduate programs is that you accept students not knowing how they will do. Not knowing about their mental stability. And you have with Stony Brook, the students go there—in the first year you can figure out which ones are good and which ones are stable, and then you can recruit them to Cold Spring Harbor and Stony Brook has to deal with the ones that don’t turn out to be any good. They [the trustees] said basically that we have a very good deal, which actually had two effects on us. Very important effects. One was that we did recognize, in fact, that we did have a very good deal with Stony Brook, and, in fact, it meant we wanted to maintain our relationship with Stony Brook. We did not want to sever this relationship. The other though was that we thought we could do something special here.

Cold Spring Harbor has always been a leadership institution in just about everything it has ever done; with its postgraduate courses, with its research, with its press, its meetings. It does things in its own way and it does it very well. It’s a quality institution.

One of the problems with graduate education at Cold Spring Harbor before we had our own graduate school was that we had no control over the graduate education. We could go teach as we did and give lectures at Stony Brook, but we were not actually engaged— ourselves—in graduate education. One of the things that we felt and thought about in that period was whether we should do it or not is that if we could become involved ourselves—where we were responsible for a graduate program for which we would get all the credit—we could do something special in the context of what Cold Spring Harbor had to offer.

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.

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