September 12, 2001: Features
the Lab to the Corner Office
By Kathryn Federici Greenwood
Shirley Tilghman had been sitting for an hour in the parking garage at the Seattle airport, unable even to back up because of horrendous gridlock. Tilghman's small children, Rebecca and Alexander, strapped into car seats, were antsy after a six-hour flight from Philadelphia to Seattle en route to Vancouver, where they would spend Christmas with Tilghman's parents.
The kids "were bouncing off the walls, they were cranky," says Tilghman. "I was going to go nuts." She finally got out of the car to figure out why no one was moving. After surveying the situation, she realized that drivers were ignoring an alternate exit. "So I started pointing at cars and said, 'See that, look down there, you can go down there, there's another exit.' And I got the first few cars moving, and then every fourth car would stop and want to discuss whether I was doing the right thing, and I kept saying, 'Just go!' I was yelling, probably. I was just out of control. And finally a car stopped and the driver asked, 'Are you from New York?!' "
A professor of molecular biology since 1986 who became Princeton's president on June 15, Tilghman is not from New York, but she knows how to take charge, whether it's directing the research in a lab at the forefront of molecular biology, managing nearly single-handedly the upbringing of her two children, or taking over as president of an elite university.
Two things have been paramount to Shirley Tilghman, her work and her family. And those priorities aren't about to change now. "One of the first questions I asked Harold Shapiro when I was thinking about whether to be a candidate was, Can one have a family life and be the president of a major university? He assured me that that was the case," says Tilghman.
Like Shapiro, she is Canadian. Born in Toronto, Tilghman grew up in a happy home. Her ability to become a pioneering scientist, devoted parent, trusted friend, admired mentor - a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind - stems at least in part from her childhood. Her mother, Shirley Marie, and father, Henry Wimmett Caldwell, were "deeply in love with each other," says Tilghman. "Out of that upbringing, out of that sort of incredible sense of security of being a family that cared about one another came a huge self-confidence that has served me enormously well."
Tilghman's father, who died three years ago, and mother, who now lives in Vancouver, met on a blind date. After deciding they wanted to marry, they had to wait about five years until Henry, who worked for the Bank of Nova Scotia, earned $1,200 a year - to fulfill a bank requirement that guarded against embezzlement. They finally married in 1940 and moved into an apartment in Toronto, a major city with a small-town feel. Two years later, Tilghman's older sister, Linda, was born with severe mental disabilities. By that time, Tilghman's father had joined the army and was serving in Europe, and her mother had moved in with her own parents in their modest house in a residential Toronto neighborhood. Also sharing the house were Tilghman's ailing great-grandmother and her uncle, his wife, and their son.
By the time Shirley Marie Caldwell was born in 1946, the family had moved Linda to a hospital in Ontario, where she still lives. Two years later, another daughter, Nancy, was born, followed nine years later by a fourth daughter, Tracey.
From an early age, Tilghman excelled in school. Her second-grade teacher in Toronto "would give the class something to do," says Tilghman's mother, Shirley Caldwell, "and Shirley would have it done, and then she'd be standing up asking for more." That teacher, says Caldwell, "wanted to know if Shirley played normally like other children because she couldn't keep up with her in her class. I said, 'Sure. She fights with her sister, and has her friends. She does everything any other little girl would do.'
"As a little girl I never knew anyone so impatient in my life. And how she ever took up science I don't know because it must be the most demanding thing to do. She was impatient with me and with her sisters. She wanted to get things done. She wanted to do things her way."
Tilghman was also curious. When most children would want to snuggle with their parents for a bedtime story, Tilghman would ask her father to do mental arithmetic. "She would run up to him and say, 'Dad, I have to learn something now,'" says her sister Tracey.
Particularly close to her father, Tilghman played golf and the piano with him. He was "the best-natured man I ever knew," says Caldwell. "He was quiet at times, but he had a wonderful sense of humor."
The family ate dinner together every night and took memorable vacations - road trips to visit relatives in Vancouver and Houston, Texas, and camping trips, among other stops. "We never did anything very fancy. We never did anything that you couldn't drive to. But those were just magical, magical moments and one of the things I did in raising my own children is I made sure we had vacations, and that those vacations mattered," says Tilghman. For years the Caldwells also attended the Anglican Church on Sundays. But gradually Tilghman became "disaffected" with the church and stopped going when she was a teenager. Over time, she says, she no longer believed in God. "There wasn't a moment" in time when "I finally understood that I didn't believe in God anymore. It was a very gradual move away."
The Bank of Nova Scotia transferred Tilghman's father several times. When Tilghman was in second grade, the family moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, then on to London, Ontario, for two years before landing in Winnipeg, where Tilghman went to junior high school and high school. A middle-class manufacturing city with large Jewish and Ukrainian immigrant populations, Winnipeg was cold and isolated climatically but rich in cultural offerings, with theaters and its own symphony.
A top student in high school, Tilghman won academic awards, served as treasurer on the student council, edited the yearbook, played sports, including basketball, volleyball, and track, and skied and rode horses. She was a good team player, says high school friend Lynn Saunders, who ran the hurdles with Tilghman at Kelbin High School and now lives in Toronto. She even tried her hand at an all-girl band called the Ladybugs, a Beatles take-off. "We were funny, but we were truly terrible," says Tilghman, who sang and strummed a guitar. "For a period of time, we managed to convince Neil Young to sing in the background. He was horrified, humiliated."
Even though Tilghman stood out academically, she mixed easily with lots of different groups in high school. "She was very good at being a normal teenager," says Saunders. "I always respected that she was very, very bright, and yet that didn't detract from our relationship or make me feel like less of a person."
One teacher in particular, Leon Orlikow, who taught 10th-grade history, sparked Tilghman's intellectual interests. "He was more important than any other teacher primarily because he never accepted that good was enough," says Tilghman. He told her parents that she lacked "aggression about learning. And that for me was a huge wake-up call."
Her father was also hugely influential. "I got my feminism from my father," says Tilghman. "He fought for me every time there was an attempt to pigeonhole me as a woman." In high school, a guidance counselor had suggested that Tilghman would make an "excellent executive secretary" after interpreting an aptitude test - which made her father "incredulous" and outraged.
Like many of her peers, Tilghman had a strong sense of social justice. "She really would get very upset at any kind of sign of racism anywhere," says her sister Tracey. "Material things weren't important to her at all."
Although Tilghman's interest in math emerged early in life, her love for science came later, in high school. When it came time to choose a college, she applied for a scholarship to Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, considered one of the best institutions in Canada. There she majored in chemistry and minored in mathematics, after flirting with studying English. "Shirley was a good student but not a nose-to-the-grindstone type," says Nicholas Darby, a college friend. She had wide-ranging interests, including music and theater, and a great sense of humor, adds Darby.
After graduating from Queen's in 1968 (she went skiing instead of attending the ceremony), Tilghman headed for Sierra Leone to teach chemistry to high school students through Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), an organization similar to the Peace Corps. "After the end of university, she just wrote us a letter and said that she was going to Africa, which upset me," says her mother. "I didn't think she should go." But Tilghman realized once she got on the science treadmill, there would be no opportunity to take time off. "If I was ever going to do anything other than be a scientist, this was my only chance," she says.
She lived with other teachers and met her future husband, Joseph Tilghman, a Peace Corps volunteer from Philadelphia. During her two years in Africa, the young Tilghman wrote insightful letters about her experiences to her family members and friends. Some of them still have those letters some 30 years later. "It sort of blew my mind to see the power of her writing," says Saunders. "She thought so clearly and felt so deeply about everything in Africa. It's amazing what she wrote at that stage in life, the insight that she had into herself, her life, and the world."
After returning from Africa, Tilghman married Joseph Tilghman in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1970, and started graduate school in biochemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia while her husband earned his law degree, also at Temple. "They didn't have much money, but they always found a decent place to live," says Caldwell. "One time I arrived and both soles [of Tilghman's shoes] were flapping. I said, 'Shirley, my goodness,' and she said, 'I know, everybody's telling me I need shoes, and I just tell them mom and dad will be here soon to get me a new pair.'" Tilghman, the graduate student, never complained about her financial austerity, says her mother. "She was doing what she wanted."
Her creativity shone early in her career. While conducting her postdoctoral fellowship under Philip Leder at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, she made a number of groundbreaking discoveries while participating in cloning the first mammalian gene. Tilghman was a leading figure in the discovery that genetic information was not contiguously expressed, but it was "expressed in separated segments," which are now called introns. "It was one of the most important pieces of work ever done in our laboratory," says Leder, whom Tilghman considers a mentor.
Tilghman "was among the first young scientists in the country to actually go into molecular biology at the very beginning when it became possible to do sophisticated DNA analysis in the 1970s," says Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton. "She was one of the first people to apply molecular biology to mice. She was among the leaders in the field and that's been the story all the way through. Everything she's tackled, she's been a leader at."
From NIH, she returned to Philadelphia for a year at Temple as an assistant professor at Fels Research Institute before going across town to the Fox Chase Cancer Center. At the same time she served as an adjunct associate professor of human genetics and biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania. She continued to make scientific breakthroughs in understanding the structure and mechanism of expression of mouse genes in the liver during the embryo's development.
Balancing career and kids
At the same time Tilghman was making a name for herself in the lab, she was considering starting a family. "I didn't go ahead [and have children] until I was sure that it was what I wanted to do." She wasn't certain "whether I'd be any good at it, whether I would like it, whether I would be able to integrate it in a way that nobody lost." Tilghman was married for 10 years before Rebecca, now a Princeton senior majoring in art history, was born in 1980. Two years later, around the time she earned tenure at Fox Chase, she gave birth to Alex, who is now working in the Princeton area. Even though she embarked on motherhood, she didn't slow down much (she traveled to China for a meeting when she was seven months pregnant with Rebecca). And she didn't have time to look back. When Alex was just six months old, she and her husband separated. They divorced in 1983 and Tilghman took custody of the children.
"It was very scary in the beginning," when she was a new single mom, she says. And "it was very difficult. I wouldn't have been able to admit that when I was going through it because I was in denial. But when I look back now, it strikes me as extraordinarily difficult. And it's a miracle I got through it. I think that the hardest thing facing women today is doing both [working and raising a family] and doing both well. If I had let myself think about it for too long when I was going through it, I might have just been overwhelmed, so I think I basically didn't think about it, and just charged ahead and hoped for the best."
When they were first divorced, her ex-husband would take the children for weekends, but eventually he joined the State Department and moved overseas. Today he's based in Hong Kong.
Sometimes Tilghman would put the kids in the car to make them fall asleep so she could read the newspaper. Often after she put them to bed at night, she would do more work.
With another working mom, Tilghman was instrumental in founding an on-site day care center at Fox Chase, which their children attended. But juggling family and kids became even harder when Rebecca entered kindergarten and her day school was miles away from Fox Chase. "I was spending probably two and a half hours a day in the car, just driving back and forth across this huge city from Becca's day school to work." Eventually, she decided she had to find a place to live where work and schools and day care were within minutes of each other. So in 1986, two years after Arnold J. Levine, then the chairman of Princeton's new molecular biology department (and now president of Rockefeller University), first started recruiting her, she accepted his offer. When she moved to New Jersey, Alex was four and Rebecca six.
Tilghman spent all of her free time with them. "Her kids were her social life," says her sister Tracey. Tilghman is forgiving, open, and honest with them, she adds. "Becca adores her. And they get along really well." Tilghman attended all Rebecca's gymnastic meets and all of Alexander's lacrosse, basketball, and hockey games. "She always was very supportive," says Rebecca. "She's not on top of me but she's also not not there. She manages to have this equilibrium where she's not being a pain but I don't feel abandoned."
Traveling and vacations have been a touchstone for the Tilghmans. They've been to Greece. They've taken ski trips with Princeton friends to the Poconos and Colorado. And they regularly travel to destinations in Canada to spend time with Tilghman's family. "We have a lot of fun. We spend a lot of time laughing. Shirley has a real strong sense of family," says Tracey, a retail representative with Ralston Purina who lives in the Canadian province of New Brunswick with her husband and 14-year-old daughter. Tilghman's sister Nancy, a professor of economics at Kwantlen College in Vancouver, is married with three grown children. "Especially when she came back from Africa and moved to the United States, her family became more important to her," says Tracey.
How did she make it work - combining a stellar career with the joys and demands of single motherhood? By being organized and "jettisoning frivolous activity" when she is at work, she says. "This sounds pretty harsh, but I just couldn't stand around and talk about sports, or talk about the news, or gossip, or take long lunches. If you've only got a set number of hours at work, then every single minute has to count, and it leads to a less relaxed work environment, no question. It also leads to a less enriched relationship that you have with the people you work with." She also finds that "compartmentalizing" her brain helps. "So that when you're at work, you're at work, and you don't sit around feeling guilty about not being at home. And when you're at home, you're at home and you don't sit around feeling guilty that you're not at work. And just giving yourself a break, saying Look, there's only one of me. I can only do so much. These are the two things I care about in life, and I'm going to do each one as much as I can, but this is all there is.
"When I'm at home, I can think of 12 things I should do once I get to work. I should call the dentist and make an appointment for Becca, I should call the refrigerator repairman. And I have all these things in my head, and I'll be thinking about them." But as soon as she gets to work, her focus changes. "I'd walk in the door and suddenly, that's what I'm doing."
She's also managed to balance career and kids by making choices. When Rebecca and Alexander were still young, and job offers landed on her desk that would have taken her away from Princeton, she declined, in part because of the proximity of her work to her children's schools. And she has turned down invitations to be a candidate for prestigious appointments at Princeton, including provost and dean of the faculty. "I did not think the children were at an age where I could afford to be taking on any bigger challenge than I was already doing. So that was the most important thing. The other was that I didn't feel that I had done what I wanted to do in science."
A lab of her own
In the 1980s, Tilghman had been studying an unusual gene in the mouse whose function was not known. Soon after she arrived at Princeton in 1986, her lab discovered that the gene is expressed differently depending on whether it comes from the mother or father - a phenomenon called genomic imprinting. In the case of this gene, the father's copy remains silent for the entire life of the offspring, while the copy inherited from the mother is completely active. Her continuing work is designed to understand the signal that determines whether the gene will be active or not, and why mammals have evolved to express genes in a parent-specific manner. "Her lab has done more than any other lab in working out the details of this bizarre phenomenon," says Lee Silver. Tilghman has also worked on other genes that affect the development of the embryo.
As she has pushed at the frontiers of knowledge, Tilghman has created countless scientists in her wake. Many of her former students look to her as a mentor and friend. She credits her ability to guide students to the mentors she had - among them her father, Leon Orlikow, Philip Leder, and Richard W. Hanson, her graduate school professor who now is a biochemist at Case Western University and will teach at Princeton this fall. In her labs, despite what she calls her "compartmentalized brain," Tilghman seems to have the ability to create both a productive and a friendly environment - a place where people want to be. Sally A. Camper, who conducted her postdoctoral fellowship under Tilghman's tutelage and now is a professor of human genetics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, says Tilghman talked to everyone in her lab every day. "She had a knack for team building," says Camper, "which made it fun to work in the lab."
Tilghman also knows how to "bring people up to her level because she expects them to work at that professional level," according to Camilynn Brannan *90, Tilghman's first graduate student at Princeton and now an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Brannan also found her very good at "thinking out of the box" and ready to adapt to new ideas. "She really taught me to trust your data" and "how to take a very complex problem and break it up into testable parts."
Her charges tend to keep in touch long after they've left Princeton, and many of the lessons her former graduate students and postdocs learned come in handy once they start running their own labs. "She once said to me that science is all about communication," says James H. Millonig *94, now an assistant professor in the neuroscience and cell biology department at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "As I've progressed in my career I can see that that's absolutely true."
Tilghman motivates both career scientists, in her lab, and nonscientists, through freshman seminars and the Council on Science and Technology, which encourages the teaching of science to nonscience majors. When she first came to Princeton she had never taught undergraduates, and wasn't in fact sure she would like it. But as she has said many times, she has found the students at Princeton "breathtaking." Within the molecular biology department, Tilghman initiated new courses and directions. "The department flourished," says Levine. And undergraduates quickly grew to adore her.
During class discussions, Tilghman calls each of her students by name and keeps them engaged in the material. "Her teaching style was based on making a personal connection with her students," says David Ascher '99, who took STC 199: Origins of the Human Condition, majored in the Woodrow Wilson School, and now is a management consultant with McKinsey and Company in Los Angeles. "We didn't see her as a professor regurgitating material, but rather as someone who has lived science, cared about it deeply, and made it a priority to share it with us. She was always pushing your thinking. Always making you drive to the next level.
"She can be talking about what most people would consider a boring subject, and have the biggest smile on her face, and you know that it's there because she sees a side of this that other people don't see. And she is going to work with you so that you see it too."
The relationship between student and professor for Tilghman doesn't stop at the classroom door, say her charges. She waves to them on campus, they drop into her office to talk and invite her to lunch, she goes to their extracurricular activities. "You have two kinds of professors," Ascher says. "You have professors who give their lecture and then take off as soon as they can. Then you have professors who lead a class and then stick around because they want to make sure they've answered everyone's questions. They want to have conversations, and they want to get to know their students. And Dr. Tilghman was definitely the latter. So after every class, she would wait around, and the funny thing is that the students would as well. Students were not eager to leave. She's such an engaging person that conversations with her are all-consuming."
Tilghman's scientific reach has been far and wide. She's played a major role in guiding how science gets done in this country through her service on a number of advisory boards for other academic institutions - Rockefeller University, NIH, the Jackson Laboratory, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Sciences at MIT, to name just a few - as well as her service on national commissions and panels on the human genome project, embryonic stem-cell research, and human cloning. "She's been very effective at being a voice of reason on these national committees," says Silver. "She's so good at communicating complex ideas to lay people. Most scientists don't have [that ability]. Because of that, she's been able to have a major impact."
A member of the major learned societies, including the U.S. National Academy of Scientists, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, she has worked in both very public and quiet ways to try to break down obstacles for women in science. When given the opportunity, she will speak out. In a 1993 New York Times two-part editorial, she eloquently and forcefully discussed the issues that stood in the way of women in science. She wrote, "I would like to create a workplace in which our roles in our families and in society are equally valued. I have sat through too many late-night sessions at scientific meetings listening to my male colleagues brag about their busy schedules and long absences from home."
She's also embraced what a colleague referred to as "good citizen" projects such as reading grants and serving on editorial committees - sometimes thankless jobs that are time-consuming and rarely appear on a résumé.
Clearly, her decision to become Princeton's 19th president demonstrates her commitment to higher education and service. "For her to step out of science right now is like watching Michael Jordan retire from basketball at the top of his game," says Angela Creager, an associate professor of history.
"The only place she would do that for is Princeton," says her sister Tracey.
Even Tilghman's mother was surprised when she called to tell her she might be moving to Nassau Hall. "I was a little aghast. I said, 'Hon, what about your lab? You love it so much.' 'Well,' she said, 'I'm 54. Your enthusiasm and brain aren't as fresh as they are when you're younger.' And she said it would be a great way to end her career."
Although Tilghman says she's sad to leave her lab, she feels exhilarated about the challenge ahead.
Her faculty colleagues who have gotten to know her through serving on various university committees admire her energy and commitment. They say she's a great listener, open-minded, principled, willing to change her mind, and modest about her own accomplishments. "She never imposes her judgments or opinions on other people," says Laura Engelstein, a professor of history. "It's easy to respect her and like her at the same time."
She gets to the heart of issues and makes tough decisions, says James C. Sturm '79, the director of the Center for Photonics and Opto-Electronic Materials. "Right away people recognize that you'd better listen to what she says. She's tough in terms of demanding quality and people respect that."
She's also willing to go against the grain. In 1998, Tilghman chaired a National Research Council panel that wrote a report, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists, that argued that the glut of new Ph.D.s in the life sciences outstripped the availability of desirable jobs, creating sagging morale and destructive competition in labs, leaving scientists trapped for years in low-paid and transitory postdoc positions. To remedy the situation, the report called on universities to freeze the size of their programs - a conclusion that wasn't popular with some faculty members in the field, says her former mentor Hanson. "She took heat from that," he says.
But she also cares about other people, says Tilghman's close friend and weekly tennis partner Rebecca Maynard, a trustee professor in education at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting professor in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. "She's going to make the hard decisions when she needs to. But she will execute them in a way that will be compassionate and sensitive to people who are, or circumstances that are, adversely affected."
Like her colleagues, her friends find her easy to be with, genuine, and always ready to help out. Last spring 17-year-old Lizzie Harvey, who is close friends with Tilghman's children, phoned Tilghman to ask for help on an advanced placement biology research project. Without hesitating, Tilghman spent several Sunday afternoons between February and April showing Lizzie how to perform a comparative analysis of the human and mouse genomes.
"She is intensely interested in whatever is it she's learning about," says Lizzie's mother, Princeton's associate treasurer Laurel Harvey, whose family often vacations with the Tilghmans. "She gets passionate about something. She just draws you in, you're hooked. Because you get passionate, too. She's approachable, she's warm, but there is sort of a steely resolve tempered with grace and a clever wit."
And when she needs it, there's that toughness that helps clear traffic jams and, her sister Tracey reveals, defeat muggers. When Tilghman was a graduate student, "she came out of the university one day, and a kid came up, grabbed her purse, and was trying to take off with it, and Shirley wouldn't let go. So he dragged her four city blocks, with her screaming and yelling at him. And finally he couldn't stand it, so he took off," leaving Tilghman and her purse behind.
"Shirley's like that - stubborn in a way, stubborn in a good way," her sister says. "But I think that's a part of what helps make her successful. She says, 'I'm going to do it, it's not going to defeat me, I'm just going to do it.' "
Kathryn Federici Greenwood is PAW's staff writer.
Coming in the October 10 PAW: The Princeton Harold Shapiro leaves behind.