Recorded: 09 Jul 2004
When we came in July and you can imagine, we were dealing with the summer months. So one of the things I was doing was reporting to the Rolling Fives every month as we had meetings what was happening with the graduate school.
I’ll never forget. It must have been a September Rolling Five meeting. I was saying, you know, I wonder how best to get the faculty involved of this process of setting up a school. And, Nouria Hernandez, she said, why don’t you simply have weekly teas at which you invite whoever want to come and talk about a graduate school at Cold Spring Harbor. It was the most brilliant suggestion. It was actually very seminal in the development of the school because I did exactly that.
Every week at Wednesdays at 4 o’clock, I had tea in the Bush Fireplace room for anybody who wanted to come and talk about graduate education. What happened was that a self-selected group of people would come and talk about what kinds of things we wanted to do. What kind of courses we wanted to have, how we would structure it. Those teas basically from September to December set up, established, the structure of what the curriculum would be. And what was very much on my mind—there were certain principles that we established early on about establishing a curriculum. One was that there was too many facts in biology these days. You couldn’t learn everything. We developed a school curriculum that was designed around teaching students how to think as opposed to having lots of facts. The other was that it had become clear that biology was much more integrated ________what was true for plants [it] was also true for animals and even bacteria. The students need to learn how different topics and different areas of biology influence each other.
So the people who stood out most at those teas, interestingly tended to be junior faculty. People like Michael Hengarter and Bill Tansey, but also David Helfman, Adrian Krainer [and] David Spector would come. Others came—Michael Zhang came very often. Others would come a few times just to find out what was going on. People like Hollie Cline [and] Roberto Malinow. But there would be a different group of people at each one. But we went through the different ways we want to structure. One very important point was that both Michael Hengartner and Scott Lowe had been graduate students at MIT where there’s a course on Methods and Logic, which is about learning how to think about science as opposed to the facts. I had taken a course as had Adrian Krainer at Harvard called Biochem 112 that was similarly teaching how to critically evaluate papers and such. So one course that I took at Harvard was driven by problem sets. The one that Michael Hengartner and Scott Lowe took at MIT was driven by paper discussion with faculty. We sort of combined the two into our curriculum.
One of the things that I was very much interested in thinking about the curriculum was how could we take advantage of all the assets that Cold Spring Harbor had to offer. We may not be a large university. We may not have a huge student body. We may not have undergraduates, but what were the things that we could take advantage of here?
As examples, we don’t have undergraduates. Usually when you go to graduate schools, graduate students will teach or help teach the undergraduate courses, the labs, the discussion groups, grade papers, we didn’t have that. What we did have was something absolutely unique which was the DNA Learning Center where students would be able to teach high school students or even middle school students.
I think that one of the things that came out very early on was that we wanted to be very good. We wanted our students to be outstanding. We wanted them to become leaders in the biological sciences. Not just scientists who would maybe do experiments, but really leaders. That drove us to say you have to learn more than just how to do science, you have to learn how to communicate, to be a leader you need to communicate. In fact, we have a whole course on scientific exposition ethics, which was masterminded by Bill Tansey.
As an example, the DNA Learning Center fit very well because teaching high school students and teaching middle school students involves a lot of, basically, communicating a very simple level of biological concepts. So that if you could teach middle school students you would also be able to talk to the people. Maybe the person in the seat next to you on the airplane, you would be able to talk to. Or if you had to address a group of lay audience who doesn’t know biology, you would be able to explain it in simple terms. And that’s what we wanted in creating leaders.
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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