Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Guidance through Education
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

So I did two undergraduate degrees. At McGill I did an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics. I always thought I would be a mathematician or a physicist for my career. Then I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to go to Oxford where I could do whatever I wanted. Initially I signed up to do a PhD in physics. But on my way there I decided that—I was still young, I was 20—in the U.K. a PhD is done in three years and I thought you know, do I really want to be set at the age of 23. And I thought; why not take this opportunity to take this open scholarship to do something different. I’d been exposed to some biology as an undergraduate. My undergraduate thesis was in biophysics. So I decided to do biology. But I also always wanted to or I’d always been excited by philosophy both in high school and I took some courses in college.

So I did a second undergraduate degree at Oxford in physiology where I got exposure to biology including neuroscience and philosophy. It was 50/50, which I loved so much I must say that at the end of that I considered studying philosophy and going on with that. But somehow came back to the science. Has it influenced me? Do I use it today? Or have I used my science? I think the answer is “yes.” I think the key about philosophy and certainly as it was taught at Oxford. It’s all about being rigorous in your thinking and coming up with the best argument. The thing about biology is that sometimes if you don’t have a good argument, you can cover your tracks with a lot of data. You just throw facts at people. In philosophy there are no facts. So you have to strip your argument down to the bare essentials and being forced to do that I think is a great training for when you then go into other fields where you don’t encumber your arguments with a lot of extraneous data. I think it definitely influenced the way I think the forcing me to clarify my thinking at every step and I think that has stayed with me.

Narrator: Do you have a favorite of them?

Philosophers? Well, I became quite taken with the British analytical philosophers when I was there. You know, starting with Wittgenstein and some of the more contemporary ones including Strawsen who reinterpreted Kant as well as some very contemporary ones as well. One fellow called Gareth Evans actually was one of my favorites. He’s well known in those circles but not widely known outside.

Narrator 2: So who taught you philosophy and physiology?

Well at Oxford I was very fortunate. I had two tutors in philosophy; Christopher Peacock and Jonathan Glover. Both were terrific in their own ways. They really influenced me in a big way. So, on the physiology side it was Julian Jack was my physiology tutor and he had a very big influence on me in neuroscience in steering me towards various issues and steering me towards various people including the person with whom I did my ultimately, David Atwell, who had been a student with Julian. Very smart. Razor sharp mind. Very exciting to interact with. So Julian steered me towards David and in fact I did my PhD with David.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a pioneer in developmental neurobiology, is currently president of The Rockefeller University in New York, where he heads the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, and oversees 70 independent laboratories that operate within the university. He is the first industry executive to serve as president of Rockefeller. He joined Genentech, Inc. in 2003 as Senior Vice President, Research Drug Discovery, and was promoted to Executive Vice President, Research Drug Discovery in June, 2008. In that capacity, he was responsible for research management of all therapeutic areas of research, including a team of 1,400 researchers and his own research lab. His research at Genentech on the development of the brain uncovered details of how Alzheimer's disease is triggered.

Born in Canada in 1959, he was also raised in Belgium and the UK, and has lived in the US since 1990. Marc completed an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from McGill University (B.Sc., 1980), and a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar, B.A., 1982). Prior to earning his Ph.D. at University College London (1986) in neurophysiology, Marc became the national coordinator of the Canadian Student Pugwash Organization, which promotes awareness and action relating to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and other ethical implications of science and technology policy. During his postdoctoral work at UCL and Columbia University, Marc’s research focus became developmental neurobiology. From 1991 to 2001 he was on the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco.

From 1994 to 2003 he was also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His famous discovery of the netrins (a class of proteins involved in axon guidance) occurred in 1994 while he was at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000 he co-founded the biopharmaceutical company Renovis. From 2001-2003 he was the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences and a professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University.

Among the many awards Marc has received for his work in neuroscience are the McKnight Investigator Award (1994), the Ameritec Prize (1995), the Foundation IPSEN Prize for Neuronal Plasticity (shared, 1996), the Viktor Hamburger Award, International Society for Developmental Neuroscience (1997), the Wakeman Award for spinal cord injury research (shared, 1998), the Robert Dow Neuroscience Award (2003), and the Reeve-Irvine Research Medal (shared, 2006). Tessier-Lavigne has been elected a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom.

SCIENTISTS SPEAKING ABOUT BECOMING A SCIENTIST
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