Voices from Cold Spring Harbor, Past and Present

 

Dr. Evelyn Witkin, geneticist, identified mechanisms of DNA repair and recombination through experiments on bacteria.

"When I first came here in the summer of 1944, there were a lot of people here who were very famous, whose names I had seen in textbooks. I was a graduate student and very overwhelmed by all the people I met here.

"I met Barbara McClintock the first evening I came here. She was smoking a cigarette and reading, and when she said who she was I almost flipped. I had just been studying her work in my courses. She was beginning to do the work that won her the Nobel prize [in Physiology or Medicine, 1983]. And she told me about her work, and I was very impressed. She asked me if I'd like to come to her lab, and that began a habit. I spent hours every week visting at her lab and hear her talk about what she was doing over all the years that I was here and many years after that.

"It was an absolutely incredible period. Everything was happening. Every symposium from '46 on was a story of the explosion of molecular biology. Of course, Watson presented his model in '53. Jim passed around a three-dimensional model of the model, and just holding it and looking at it, I felt just the way Crick said, that this was the secret of life. It was absolutely evident that this was going to answer all the big questions.


"Cold Spring Harbor was an extraordinarily casual place [in the 1940s]. Everybody wore shorts. Nobody wore anything else for talks. As a matter of fact, when we would meet people walking down Bungtown Road in jackets and ties, we would say, 'The chemists are here!' "


For more on Evelyn Witkin, click here.


Anindya Bagchi, mouse geneticist at the McClintock Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor

"Listening to Sydney Brenner, Walter Gilbert, and Arthur Kornberg, I thought, Kornberg is eighty-five years old, and when he was seventy-five he took up something completely new in another groundbreaking area. The kind of challenges these people engage themselves in is so inspiring for young scientists like me. If you have the basic curiosity and the courage to stand up and ask the most difficult questions, you can do great science. That's the lesson I've gotten from this conference, from these great scientists.

"Cold Spring Harbor holds some of the best conferences around throughout the year, with some of the best minds presenting their research here before they publish it. But this meeting is so special because I'm seeing some of the beautiful minds whose work we have read in the textbooks. I see them talking about an issue and how they're building it up in their mind. None of it is 100 percent true, because that's not how science works, but they're asking the most bold questions, even today. Age has failed to defeat them. It's so inspiring how dogged their spirits are."

Bagchi, who studies mouse genetics to understand human cancer, went on to talk about the responsibility of scientists to affect public policy. He is especially concerned about the role of environmental pollutants in promoting cancers and the need for government to regulate products, such as cigarettes, that are known carcinogens.

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