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View from the Genetic Bridge
Renowned geneticist Shirley M. Tilghman Ph.D.,
Academy of Sciences member, Princeton University professor, and
director of one of the university’s most ambitious new projects, is
a tough woman to reach. Impossible, in fact: repeated requests to
shoehorn a short interview into her crammed schedule were graciously
but firmly denied.
With only a few hectic days here between conferences abroad, Professor
Tilghman (pronounced TILL-man) had to focus on her weekly research
lab, as well as meet with the architect of the future Institute for
Integrative Genomics that she will head, to be built on the Princeton
campus off Washington Road. She must also consider candidates for
the multidisciplinary faculty she has to assemble, drawing scientists
not only from her own field of molecular biology but chemists,
and physicists as well. That leaves little time for even her
addiction — murder mysteries — let alone another interview.
So there is no way to ask, for instance, if growing up in Canada,
Dr. Tilghman came from a family of scientists; or why she wanted to
teach high school for two years in Sierra Leone after graduating with
honors from Queen’s University in Ontario in 1968; or if a portion
of her groundbreaking work in genetics — creating a model of
gene inheritance — had any personal resonance because of siblings,
or children of her own.
Nor can we get her comments on the drama that has played out over
the past decade as the race — in which she has been a key player
— to decode the human genome has gathered lightning speed. We
won’t hear her insights into the personalities that have dominated
that drama: the venerable James Watson Ph.D., one of the
of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, who headed up the
Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, only to
be deposed; and the maverick J. Craig Venter Ph.D., whose upstart
Celera Genomics shot ahead of the publicly-funded NIH-based project.
(The two entities recently announced a collaborative detente after
years of fireworks.)
Nor can we ask what it feels like to ride the wave of a scientific
revolution, after a century that featured the moon walk, the
of the microchip, and the mass production of penicillin. Her field
may shortly eclipse them all.
All of which makes the Princeton Adult School’s coup
that much more impressive. On Thursday, February 10, Tilghman will
kick off this year’s Anne B. Shepherd Lecture Series at the Princeton
High School auditorium. The eight-week lecture series, entitled
From the Bridge," will also tap other academic luminaries to
the environment, women, communication and technology, race and human
rights, the physical sciences, and images in art and society.
topic is "The Life Sciences: Genetics," and her perspective
— like the other lecturers in the series — is what the
terrain looks like on this cusp of a new century.
It has been almost 150 years since Gregor Mendel began breeding garden
peas, 90 years since Thomas Morgan tracked the progeny of fruit flies,
and close to 50 years since two postgraduate students, the
Dr. Watson and Francis Crick, deciphered the molecular structure of
DNA. There within the two coiled strands of bonded nucleotides is
the human genome, 3 billion chemical bits of genetic code. Those bits,
organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes, are the machinery that
and synthesizes proteins within the body’s 3 trillion cells. And those
proteins in turn determine the cells’ characteristics, chemical
Although still in its infancy, the field already promises dazzling
possibilities: a future world of personalized drugs, tailored to be
free of side effects, and the control or eradication of viruses like
AIDS and diseases like cystic fibrosis. Reports of genetic advances
come fast and furious, with already successful gene therapy treatments
to combat hemophilia B and to strengthen the cells of the heart. The
discovery of a nerve gene was reported two weeks ago, one that when
manipulated may repair an injured spinal cord.
But there are serious missteps along with the miracles. Many of the
early medical experiments have faltered, some with hideous
The current investigation into the death last fall of a teenager being
treated at the University of Pennsylvania is now uncovering other
deaths and complications nationwide.
Even without such tragedies, genetic advances bring ethical dilemmas.
Should we engineer a child’s gender, eye color, future health? Will
our genetic prints become fodder for ruthless insurers or employers?
And will genetics become another health care commodity that widens
the gap between the haves and the have-nots, making inherited cancers
and diseases like Alzheimer’s a poor person’s problem?
While other researchers hash out ethical implications, the Institute
of Integrative Genomics, under Tilghman’s direction, will focus on
basic research, bringing to the field not only a state-of-the-art
scientific institute but a new approach. Rather than continuing to
slice genetic material into individual components — particular
genes and biochemical pathways — Tilghman, her faculty, and their
fellows intend to pull this scattered information together, addressing
integration and complexity. The institute’s mission, she has been
quoted as saying, will be to decipher "how [genetic] parts fit
together to create a functional cell, a functional organ, a functional
The Institute will be housed in the Icahn Laboratory designed by
Rafael Vinoly, who also designed the Princeton University stadium.
The building is being named for Carl Icahn, the real estate and
tycoon and 1957 Princeton graduate, who donated $20 million toward
the building’s construction. It is scheduled to be finished in early
2002. Tilghman’s brain trust there will include 12 faculty members
and more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students, and
There is one other topic that we can’t report: what aspects of
Professor Tilghman intends to highlight during her lecture Thursday
night. All the more reason to attend, since hers should be a lofty
— Phyllis B. Maguire
High School Cafeteria, Walnut Lane, 609-683-1101. Shirley Tilghman
speaks on "The Life Sciences: Genetics." Pre-register, $55
series, or $8 individual admission at the door. Thursday, February
10, 8 p.m.
of Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, on "The
Thursday, February 17, 8 p.m.
Leadership, on "Women." Thursday, February 24, 8 p.m.
and Technology." Thursday, March 2, 8 p.m.
"Race and Human Rights." Thursday, March 9, 8 p.m.
Physical Sciences: Grand Theories and Particles." Thursday,
March 16, 8 p.m.
Center for Innovative Print and Paper, on "Images: Art and
Thursday, March 30, 8 p.m.
Study, on "World Politics." Thursday, April 6, 8 p.m.
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