Winship Herr on Six Basic Elements Comprising the WSBS Curriculum
  Winship Herr     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Jul 2004

What we’ve been talking about is before the trustees said go ahead with a graduate program, which was June 1997. Between 1997 and September 1998 when we got our degree granting authority from the New York State Education Department, that was probably arguably the most strenuous year of my life because that was putting together a whole graduate program. So if I could address that before we get _____?

Maybe I should step back and say that in the course of all the discussions by the time we were opening our doors recruiting students, we had six basic elements that we wanted to provide in the graduate school; a four year program, learning how to think critically about research, thinking broadly and realizing that results in different fields could impact on your own and outstanding research experience, the learning of how to communicate and how ethics are a very important part of science. And now I’ve forgotten the sixth. It will come back to me.

And the curriculum we developed goes as follows—one of the things that I’ve always found in my life is that I could concentrate on one thing better than multiple things at the same time. One element that is somewhat unique to our program in that when students arrive at the end of august they spend until December simply doing course work. Many institutions, they have students doing research rotation and course work at the same time, but we do the course work first and the rotation second—basically into the beginning of the new year—the reason we do that is multifold; one, we feel that when you are doing research you get consumed by wanting to do the research, working in the lab, impressing your rotation advisor. You want to be able to give one hundred percent effort to that process. If you are doing courses and you are doing research, one is going to get the short end of the deal. Either you are going to be working too much work in the lab and not doing enough on your course, or you’re doing too much on your course and not enough on lab.

What we do is focus on the research at the beginning. There was another important element to that to which was coming back to trying to recruit graduate students from abroad, particularly from Europe. There they have done a lot of coursework. Generally when they enter a PhD program they don’t do any coursework. We didn’t want the coursework in our program to seem to be too onerous, to last too long. So basically we say, okay, if you come in three or four months you are finished with the large body of the coursework. I just remembered the sixth point. We also wanted students to realize that learning is a life-long endeavor. You don’t come to graduate school and just take some courses and you know all you have to know and you don’t have to take courses again. It’s built into the—what Cold Spring Harbor is all about. Its postgraduate courses are all about people coming back and learning new fields. You are always having to learn new things, which means that in our curriculum, even though we have this three to four month intensive course curriculum in the fall of the first year, we in fact ask them to take courses, they have to take courses throughout their four-year period. So that they realize that they aren’t just working in the lab all the time and not having to get out and think about new things.

One of the mistakes that I made in graduate school was when I finished my courses, I thought, ah, that’s the last exam I ever have to take. That’s the last course that I’m ever going to take. It was the wrong approach because you’re always having to broaden your mind, going to seminars and taking courses as we have, for example, the Topics in Biology courses at Banbury, the one a year that the students take.

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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