Jan Witkowski

Director of Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

"Communication is absolutely a key element in science," says Jan Witkowski. It’s his job to make sure that scientists around the world can keep talking with each other and exchanging ideas through meetings and publications produced by Cold Spring Harbor. As director of the laboratory’s Banbury Center, Witkowski organizes about twenty meetings a year. "Our meetings are extremely international," he says. "The world comes to Cold Spring Harbor."

With a background in zoology and biochemistry, Witkowski went to many meetings himself before taking on the job of coordinating them, so he knows firsthand their importance. And he’s had to endure the inevitable scrutiny of others at what are known as "poster sessions," where a researcher creates a poster of his or her work, puts it on display at a meeting, and is available for discussion about it. "I used to get terribly embarrassed standing next to my poster, on the one hand not wanting to be there alone, but on the other not being terribly keen on having to defend what I’ve got against an onslaught from other people."

That onslaught, though, is useful, Witkowski says, and a necessary part of science. Because DNA is common to all living things, genome scientists studying very different organisms can often talk quite easily about each other’s work. "What the plant molecular geneticist and the animal molecular geneticist have in common is DNA," says Witkowski. "DNA has provided a common language for people working on genetics of whatever organism to talk to each other. So you can communicate very easily."

Jan Witkowski

"The DNA double helix itself is an icon of science, the way the Bohr atom was the icon of science in the '50s and '60s. It’s the one discovery of the twentieth century that’s really impressed itself on the public."

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