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View from the Genetic Bridge

Renowned geneticist Shirley M. Tilghman Ph.D.,

National

Academy of Sciences member, Princeton University professor, and

founding

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,

mathematicians,

and physicists as well. That leaves little time for even her

self-confessed

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

parent-specific

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

co-discoverers

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

development

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

"View

From the Bridge," will also tap other academic luminaries to

discuss

the environment, women, communication and technology, race and human

rights, the physical sciences, and images in art and society.

Tilghman’s

topic is "The Life Sciences: Genetics," and her perspective

— like the other lecturers in the series — is what the

intellectual

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

aforementioned

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

manufactures

and synthesizes proteins within the body’s 3 trillion cells. And those

proteins in turn determine the cells’ characteristics, chemical

health,

and disease.

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

consequences.

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

organism."

The Institute will be housed in the Icahn Laboratory designed by

architect

Rafael Vinoly, who also designed the Princeton University stadium.

The building is being named for Carl Icahn, the real estate and

manufacturing

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

postdoctoral

fellows.

There is one other topic that we can’t report: what aspects of

genetics

Professor Tilghman intends to highlight during her lecture Thursday

night. All the more reason to attend, since hers should be a lofty

view indeed.

— Phyllis B. Maguire

View from the Bridge, Princeton Adult School,

Princeton

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.

Continuing the series: George Hawkins, executive director

of Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, on "The

Environment."

Thursday, February 17, 8 p.m.

Mary Hartman, director of Rutgers’ Institute for Women’s

Leadership, on "Women." Thursday, February 24, 8 p.m.

Paul Starr, Princeton professor of sociology, on

"Communication

and Technology." Thursday, March 2, 8 p.m.

Howard F. Taylor, Princeton professor of sociology, on

"Race and Human Rights." Thursday, March 9, 8 p.m.

Peter D. Meyers, Princeton professor of physics, on

"The

Physical Sciences: Grand Theories and Particles." Thursday,

March 16, 8 p.m.

Judith Brodsky, Princeton artist and director of Rutgers’

Center for Innovative Print and Paper, on "Images: Art and

Society."

Thursday, March 30, 8 p.m.

Jack F. Matlock Jr., professor at the Institute for

Advanced

Study, on "World Politics." Thursday, April 6, 8 p.m.


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