Bruce Stillman on On Becoming Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  Bruce Stillman     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Aug 2003

Well, actually the decision [to accept the position of Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory] was about 1990. I came to Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory] in 1979. I was a postdoc for two years, then I was offered a faculty position and I stayed through all this time. But in 1989 the University of California at Berkeley approached me to become the Director of the Virus Laboratory, which was a very interesting position. I was very interested in it. Most of the negotiations went over [into] the early part of 1990. And actually I had pretty much accepted that position verbally; we were even looking at houses in Berkeley.

And then one day I was asked to go to lunch with Jim [Watson] at his very exclusive country club. So I did. And it was there that Jim said that he had intended to step down as director when he turned 65 which was in 1993, the end of ’93, and would I consider becoming director then. In the meantime he would appoint me as assistant director. This [would be] in 1991, and then I would become director when he became President of the Lab.

That was a bit of a shock to me and completely unexpected. And it was a little bit complicated too for a few reasons. One of them was that mentally I was going to Berkeley. As I said, Grace and I were looking for houses there. So I called them and said I wanted to put everything on hold for a while and think about it.

Another concern I had was about the [effect on the] organization of the Laboratory. Because when Jim was running the Genome Project down in Washington in the late 1980s he had appointed Terri Grodzicker to be assistant director of academic affairs to essentially help run the meeting and courses programs. But more importantly, Rich Roberts had been appointed as assistant director for research. Rich was appointed after Joe Sambrook had left. Rich was effectively running research right here at the Laboratory. I was very concerned about how [my becoming director] might influence Rich’s role at the Laboratory. Principally because when I came to Cold Spring Harbor I was in Demerec in Mike Mathews's and Jim Lewis’s labs and Rich was the most senior scientist in that building. Actually, I used to talk to him a lot about science and my career and he helped me a lot. I very much respected him, and later on I helped him run the Demerec building after he became assistant director for research. I guess that’s how I got involved or sucked into administration at Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory].

I was concerned about what Rich thought about [my becoming director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.] We spoke for about five weeks, had a lot of meetings with each other. Sometimes over his house or my house, sometimes at the laboratory about how we could actually have—how this transition could occur and Rich still play a significant role in the Laboratory. Well, I guess the bottom line was that it was a difficult transition, and Rich ended up leaving just before I became director. And that same year he won the Nobel Prize. So—which was expected I think. He should have won the Nobel Prize. And it was good that he did. So, that was a bit of a shock- becoming director. But when I thought about the choice of going to Berkeley or of staying here—In one way it was a fairly easy choice because I really love Cold Spring Harbor. And also it’s a very dynamic place. A lot of things change here all the time and to be involved in that aspect of it I thought would be great.

Molecular biologist and biochemist, Bruce Stillman, received his Ph.D. from the John Curtain School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in 1979. His long affiliation with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory began in 1979 when he arrived as a postdoctoral fellow. He became a member of the scientific staff (1981), Senior Scientist (1985), Assistant Director (1990), Director and Chief Executive Officer (1994), and President (2003), the position he currently holds. Stillman has also been Director of the Cancer Center at CSHL since 1992.

His research concerns DNA replication, yeast genetics, cell cycle and chromatin structure. His work has elucidated the reason why DNA sequences and silenced states of chromatin are pass through generations. His lab is concerned with understanding the mechanisms and regulation of DNA replication in eukaryotic cells, a process that ensures accurate duplication and inheritance of genetic material from one cell generation to the next.

Bruce Stillman has received numerous awards and honors and research awards. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (1993), and as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2000).