N of 1
Remarks to the Class of 2019
by Keynote Speaker Martin Chalfie, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University
Connecticut College’s 101st Commencement
May 19, 2019
President Bergeron, Dean Cole, distinguished guests, faculty (especially Marc Zimmer), staff, families, and most of all graduates: Thank you for giving Tulle and me this opportunity to visit and learn about Connecticut College and to speak to you today. Tulle and I were grateful, but surprised, when the invitation came; working scientists don’t usually give commencement addresses. And President Bergeron did not make our task easy. In her invitation, she noted that Connecticut College led all other institutions in the number of speeches on a list of great commencement addresses compiled by National Public Radio in 2014, and added, “I am convinced that you would advance this tradition.” And then we were told that each of us had half the normal time. So, no pressure.
I looked at that list and to my surprise the speech I consider the most memorable graduation speech, the one I heard 50 years ago at my college graduation, was missing. Before I quote from that speech, let me provide some background. In the Spring before my graduation from Harvard in 1969, a small group of students took over University Hall to protest the War in Vietnam. The University responded harshly, inviting the local police onto the campus where they forcibly removed the students from the building. Several students were beaten. The next day, appalled at what the University had done, the vast majority of Harvard students went out on strike. By graduation, the strike was over, but the students were still angry and sat glumly during the ceremony with red armbands on their black robes.
In this environment of anger, frustration, and distrust, Meldon Levine, a new graduate of Harvard Law School, began his speech1 saying, ‘“The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Danger from within and without.”’
The students, feeling that these comments were directed against them, hissed and booed the speaker to show their displeasure, but he persisted, saying, ‘“We need law and order! . . . without law and order our nation cannot survive. . .”’ At this point a few parents rose and clapped in approval, further annoying the students. After the applause ended, he continued. “These words were spoken in 1932 by Adolph Hitler.” The applauding, now ashamed, parents slunk to their seats, and the entire graduating class rose and gave Meldon Levine a sustained and enthusiastic ovation. He went on to say that the protests grew out of the ideals taught the students by their parents and teachers and ended by saying, “You have given us our visions and then asked us to curb them. You have offered us dreams and then urged us to abandon them. You have made us idealists and then told us to go slowly … We are asking that you allow us to realize the very values that you have held forth. And we think you should be with us in our quest.”
A great speech. Heart-felt and strong, with a message that said: Graduates, you are right to have your concerns and ideals, your hopes for the future. Those older than you need to see you for the remarkable, dedicated people you have become and listen to you. I think the same of you here today.
I also like this speech because it had no advice for the graduates, since I have always been wary of unasked-for advice. In fact, I am not sure I have advice to give. We are all unique—scientists would say an N of 1—and each of our lives is in turns messy, confusing, complicated, as well as joyful and fulfilling. And good advice for one person is not necessarily good advice for another. Besides, I rarely listen to advice, so why should you? Thus, I do not have words of advice, but I do have opinions. I will tell you something of my life, and Tulle will tell you something of hers, not as models, but to show how the future is full of surprises and pleasures. One of those joys for me has been going through life with Tulle and our daughter Sarah.
I was born in Chicago of parents who were children of immigrants. Neither of my parents went to college because of the Depression. When I went to college, they were proud and supportive, but not having had the experience, they had no suggestions of what I should do.
I entered college being interested in science, but left feeling that I could never be a scientist. A disastrous independent research project in which I repeatedly failed made me lose confidence in my abilities. Part of my failure stemmed from the ridiculous idea I had that asking for help was a sign of weakness and inability.
I’m sure you have heard the phrases “Follow your passion” and “Push through failure and learn from it.” Every time I hear them, I cringe. When I graduated college, I had no idea what I was passionate about. And I didn’t learn from or overcome failure. I quit. Fortunately, I had a second chance.
After graduation, I had a series of short-term jobs (janitor, factory worker, dress salesman, organizer of rock concerts in local parks) and then began teaching high school. There I made an important discovery: students have the summer off; teachers need to find a summer job, and mine was working in a laboratory. This time, however, I asked questions and sought help from others. I also thought of an experiment, which I tried when the boss was away, and it worked, leading to my first publication. This experience taught me several lessons. First, I realized that I did not have to do everything on my own; seeking colleagues’ advice was both useful and important. Second, I found that working with others still allowed me to contribute uniquely to a project. Third, I experienced the tremendous excitement of having an experiment work, to know that I was the first person in the world to see that particular result and to add my contribution to the world’s knowledge. I had found my passion. This summer experience gave me the confidence to go to graduate school.
Today I am a biologist using genetics to study nerve cell development and function, and I still get excited when I get new ideas and when experiments work. My most influential work, however, had nothing to do with these studies. Thirty years ago, I heard about a fluorescent jellyfish protein called Green Fluorescent Protein or GFP in a seminar. GFP glows green when irradiated with ultraviolet or blue light. Since the animals I study are transparent, I stopped listening to the talk and fantasized about the experiments I could do if I could put GFP into them: we could tell which cells had activated a gene because those cells would be green with GFP, or we could see where a protein went in a cell because it brought GFP along with it. Most importantly, we could watch these events in living organisms, we could watch biology happen. These thoughts began a research project that introduced GFP as a general biological marker and, surprisingly, because it was never a goal, led to a Nobel Prize.
Today GFP and other fluorescent proteins are essential tools in biology. For example, GFP-containing bacteria and viruses allow investigators to study how infections spread, and fluorescent mouse tumor cells allow researchers to investigate tumor growth and metastasis. Each year brings new adaptations and new uses. The efforts and thoughts of a great many people have developed uses for fluorescent proteins far beyond what I first imagined.
The GFP story also shows that one never knows who will make the next breakthrough. People worked on GFP for almost 30 years before we (as outsiders) did our experiments. To capitalize on the tremendous potential of scientific discovery, we must provide opportunities for everyone, to leave no one out. Today, I have a small lab with people from or who have parents from China, Chile, Canada, Haiti, and Vietnam as well as the US. They are amazing. We all gain when we enable everyone’s potential.
I want to say a little about the consequences of getting a Nobel Prize. First, the Nobel celebration is a wonderful week-long party celebrating academic achievement. And I had never met a king and queen before. The best part, however, was the private dinner with my friends and family where they roasted me mercilessly for three hours. Second, because of the Prize, I have traveled more broadly than I ever imagined I would and talked with high school, college, and graduate students around the world. I can report that the next generation of scientists is truly amazing. Third, the Nobel gave me one more passion, my second job. Four years ago, I was asked to chair the Committee on Human Rights of the US National Academies. Our committee works on behalf of natural and social scientists, engineers, and health professionals anywhere in the world who have suffered significant human rights abuses. These include men and women who have been jailed and, in many cases, tortured for signing petitions or statements advocating free speech, doctors who have been arrested and imprisoned because they treated injured people who their government did not approve of, and researchers whose work angered governments who did not want to hear about their findings. Currently, we work on behalf of 84 people world-wide, but this number does not include the thousands of academics who have lost their jobs or are at risk today in Turkey, Venezuela, and Nicaragua or the many more that have been displaced by war and conflict all over the world. In this effort, I am privileged to work with some astonishingly talented and dedicated people, who constantly act to better the lives of others, and I am honored to lend my voice. Who would have guessed I would get this opportunity as a consequence of playing in the lab?
I’d like to go back a bit and say something else about the work with GFP. At first not many people thought that GFP was going to be that useful. In fact, only one person in my department at that time, in all of Columbia, realized GFP’s potential, and it is time you heard from her.
Before you do, let me repeat what I said earlier: our lives are an N of 1, and we all take different paths. So, instead of advice, I have a wish: that you enjoy your uniqueness, keep your enthusiasm and ideals, and marvel at where they take you. You are now on what a friend of mine once called your “infinite summer vacation.” Relish it. Congratulations.
1Quotes are taken from a transcript of Meldon E. Levine’s speech “A Conflict of Conscience: Our Practice of Your Principles” in the July 7, 1969 issue of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin, pp. 47-48.
Life After a Liberal Arts Education
Remarks to the Class of 2019
by Keynote Speaker Tulle Hazelrigg, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University
Connecticut College’s 101st Commencement
May 19, 2019
First, let me add my thanks to President Bergeron, Marc Zimmer, and the entire Connecticut College community for this incredible honor. I will try to be brief in my comments, because I know that what you really want to do is toss your caps in the air and get on with celebrating.
I grew up in a college town, Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University. I was always interested in science as a kid. This interest was influenced by my father, who was the head science writer for the I.U. news bureau and an amateur astronomer. Both of my parents were very supportive and tolerant of my interests, so tolerant that they looked the other way and ignored my attempts to fill our home with all sorts of creatures—dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, canaries, frogs, turtles, crickets, and a rat.
My first science experiment occurred during seventh grade when I decided to test Mendel’s laws of inheritance by breeding fruit flies in our basement. Because I couldn’t stand to kill the flies, I would just let them loose in the house. Soon the house was infested with fruit flies. My father, disturbed by all the flies in the house, asked Herman Muller, the Nobel laureate and geneticist who had discovered, in his studies with fruit flies, that X-rays can cause mutations, what to do. Muller’s reply was to invite me to do my science fair projects in his lab.
So, I was on my way to becoming a scientist, or at least having a menagerie when I grew up. Unfortunately, this dream was derailed in high school, when the teacher in charge of our honorary science academy kicked me out after learning that I had attended protests against the War in Vietnam. This politically-motivated rejection made me feel like I didn’t belong in science, and I lost my motivation. This was my first big mistake: to let my choices be dictated by the whims and prejudices of others. It took me some time to undo that mistake.
From high school, I went to Oberlin College, my mother’s alma mater (she was an accomplished violinist). But an admissions officer hearing me say that I was thinking of getting back into science, said that real science students were certain of their choice before they entered college, and not just thinking about it. And I believed him, a person who knew virtually nothing about me, and majored instead in Philosophy. But as things turned out, the study of Philosophy, and my entire liberal arts education, have helped me greatly as a scientist. This education taught me to think, to ask questions, to make connections between disciplines, and also how to write, all of which have been important for my science.
After college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Like Marty, I had a series of different jobs and pursued other interests—I was a substitute teacher in the Boston school system, and then a daycare teacher; I spent a year in Sweden and Denmark taking art courses and exploring my mother’s Danish roots, and then I worked for a year as a psychiatric aide in a hospital.
At that point, I returned to Bloomington, took classes in psychology, math, chemistry, and biology, rediscovered my love of genetics, and entered the graduate program in Biology. Since then, the study of genes and development in fruit flies has been my life’s work.
I want to talk now about my contribution to the GFP story. Marty had shown that a gene’s regulatory region could drive the expression of GFP, but I wanted to put GFP onto another protein. So, my graduate student, Shengxian Wang, and I became the first people to attach GFP to another protein, creating a protein with a glowing green lantern that allowed us to follow it in living cells. As at other times, people discouraged me from doing the experiment because they thought it wouldn’t work. Fortunately, by this time, I knew enough to ignore the negative comments and proved that they were wrong; the GFP fusion protein behaved just like the normal protein except that now we could see it. I remember well the exciting moment when we sat at the microscope and first saw the bright green fluorescence of the protein in living cells.
One funny thing happened when Marty was writing his paper on GFP. Shengxian and I were completing our experiments, and Marty wanted to reference this unpublished work, and needed my written permission. The letter I wrote said he could cite our work, but only on three conditions: 1) that he made coffee early every Saturday morning for two months 2) that he cooked me a French dinner, and 3) that he took out the garbage nightly for a month. He still hasn’t paid, but he showed a slide of this letter during his Nobel lecture. A few months after that lecture the pharmacist at our local drug store recognized Marty and said, “Hey, aren’t you the scientist who just won a Nobel Prize?” Marty smiled and said yes, looking pleased. Then the pharmacist turned to me and said “I loved your letter!”
For the last several years at Columbia, I’ve taught a course called Genes and Development for non-science majors. Teaching non-majors is especially rewarding to me because they bring new and interesting perspectives to the material. Intermixed with the lectures are workshops in which the students discuss the ethical and societal impacts of the science we’ve been studying. This year the workshops included: The Uses and Misuses of DNA information, Genetically Modified Organisms, Steroid Use and Abuse, Artificial Reproductive Technologies, and Cloning. As an example of the sorts of things the students find to cover, the cloning workshop this year addressed the ethics of cloning pets, as well as environmental impacts of cloning animals threatened with extinction. Without my liberal arts education, I don’t think I would have even thought about designing this course in the way I have. That education made me more aware and concerned about how science affects our society, and how advances in science are used.
I want to turn to another topic that concerns me: the status of women in science. Bertie Preer was a good friend who was a role model to me during graduate school. She and her husband John were geneticists who made groundbreaking discoveries about genes, studying paramecia. When she started her career in the 1940s, women rarely got independent jobs in science, so she worked together with her husband in his lab, but nepotism rules made it impossible for her to be paid. In a lecture she gave as part of the Joan Wood Women in Science Lecture series at Indiana University in 1994, Bertie described her frustration. She said: “Letters of support from former professors and co-workers made no difference. I had lengthy arguments with a dean in the administration, and that made no difference. So, I continued to work with no salary for several years.” Those nepotism rules didn’t change until the 1970s. Today the situation is better, but women still have too many barriers to success in science, starting with not being hired in numbers that reflect their representation in graduate school and in postdoctoral positions. And the culture of the scientific workplace needs improvement so that everyone feels comfortable and fully supported in their careers. Science will progress more rapidly when women share in it equally with men, because science thrives on new ideas and diverse opinions.
Finally, in this last part of my talk, unlike Marty I want to give you some advice, actually the advice, I wish I had heard.
- Keep in touch with your college professors and other teachers. Let them hear from you every once in a while. One of my greatest rewards as a teacher is to hear what my former students are doing.
- Find a mentor you trust, in whatever future path you choose, and don’t be shy to ask for help and advice.
- Don’t listen to people who discourage you.
- If you choose to follow a new pathway after you leave college, like I did, don’t be surprised if it takes some time to figure this out, and if you experience some setbacks. It’s only through the ups and downs that you will actually figure out what you want, so you should embrace them.
In closing, I want to say the most important thing of all: Congratulations to all of you! And to your families and friends! This is a momentous day for you!
A professor and former chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, Martin Chalfie shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his introduction of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) as a biological marker.
His experimental work was never centered on GFP, but has long been focused on the development and function of the nervous system using genetics in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Notably, he has used this animal to identify and study the molecules that allow nerve cells to sense touch. While doing these experiments, Chalfie’s interest in GFP was stimulated by a talk he heard in 1989, leading him to conceive the idea and then demonstrate that this jellyfish protein could light up cells in other living tissues.
Chalfie completed his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Harvard University in 1969. He returned to Harvard for graduate school, completing his Ph.D. in physiology in 1977. While working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, he helped establish the first genetic model for mechanosensation, the physiological basis for touch sensitivity. In 1982, he joined the Columbia faculty, where he teaches genetics and continues to do molecular, genetic and electrophysiological research on C. elegans nerve cells.
Chalfie is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Society. He is a past president of the Society for Developmental Biology and currently chairs the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Chalfie has been honored with the American Society for Cell Biology’s E.B. Wilson Medal, and the Golden Goose Award, which recognizes scientists whose research may have originally sounded unusual but has made a significant impact on society.
Tulle Hazelrigg’s career has been distinguished by her commitment to teaching, research and discovery. As a professor in practice in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, Hazelrigg addresses questions about the propagation and differentiation of germ cells. She was the first person to use green fluorescent protein (GFP) in fruit flies and the first to create fusions of GFP attached to another protein—an advance that has changed the way biological research is conducted by allowing protein localization and function to be studied in living cells.
A 1971 graduate of Oberlin College with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, she received her Ph.D. in genetics from Indiana University in 1982. After completing postdoctoral fellowships at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore and at the University of California-Berkeley, she became an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She moved to Columbia University in 1992, where she has remained since.
Born in Evansville, Indiana and raised in Bloomington, she developed a love of science and fascination with all forms of life early on. She collected a menagerie of pets: dogs, rats, cats, chickens, ducks, canaries, fish, turtles, frogs, crickets and eventually fruit flies, which would become critical to her research. Her early attempts to study genetics in fruit flies led her, while still in junior high school, to work in the lab of Nobel Laureate Herman J. Muller, the geneticist who discovered that X-rays could cause mutations.
Hazelrigg’s numerous publications have reported on pioneering discoveries in genetics. Her research as a graduate student explored the genetic and molecular nature of one of the most important clusters of developmental genes, the Antennapedia Complex. Later, as a postdoctoral fellow, she helped develop the methods to transfer DNA into embryos that revolutionized fruit fly genetics. In her lab at Columbia, Hazelrigg has studied how RNAs are deposited and localized in the fruit fly egg, and the epigenetic regulation of genes during the production of sperm and eggs.