Recorded: 14 Aug 2003
I tell students two things. One is that you have to have a passion for doing science. You can’t go into science because it’s a default. Well, you don’t know what to do after you get a bachelor's degree therefore you go on to do a Ph.D. I see so many people that don’t know what they want to do and they go and do a Ph.D. and they have no clue about what they want to do a PhD in. I think that one should keep a lot of options open. And actually the system in the United States allows one to do that but, I think if you are going into it as a default mechanism because you don’t know what else to do then that’s not good. You have to have a passion for it. And that has to be very, very deep down.
Second of all, I think that you have to be open to listening to the advice of people but also not to take it. To follow your own path. I would not have ended up at Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory] if I had listened to some of the people who are my closest advisors at the Australia National University. I recognized that this was a good thing to do for me and I did it.
Finally, I think personally it’s very important to work on something of fundamental importance that is going to be applicable across all biology—[something] intrinsic to all biological species. That’s one of the reasons why I worked on DNA replication. But if you are going to work on a system that is esoteric, that is very focused on one particular organism, then try to find out what lessons can be learned from working on that biology and apply those very generally. Actually, one person who did this very, very effectively was Ira Herskowitz, who studied yeast genetics. [He] was one of the people that made yeast genetics such a fundamental system people had to learn because of the lessons that it could teach you in other areas of biology. And before that there were other biological systems like the phage group that didn’t just work on phages for phages' sake. They worked on phages because they were studying a fundamental problem. And I think studying fundamental problems in biology is actually really important. And you have to choose those.
Also one can think that fields are over. Now, I was a graduate student in ’76 to ’78 and I was working on DNA replication. I brought that to Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory.] And actually, interestingly John Cairns worked on DNA replication here and he came from the same department in Canberra. The other person that worked on DNA replication was Al Hershey here at Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory]. So it was a bit of a tradition, working on DNA replication at Cold Spring Harbor, but not the biochemistry of it. When I came here I wanted to continue to do it. There were enormous resources to enable me to do it. But actually it was kind of very bizarre because in 1980 or ’79 when I came here, one could have said well we knew everything about DNA replication. We knew everything about DNA replication, and yet in my career we have found out a huge amount. And so even something as fundamental as, well, we knew how replication worked. Well actually it's gotten us into a whole bunch of things that I never could have predicted.
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).