For immediate release: September 22, 2002
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David Botstein, pioneer of modern genetics, named director of genomics institute
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Princeton University has named David Botstein, a renowned geneticist, educator and pioneer of the Human Genome Project, as the new director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.
Botstein will succeed Shirley M. Tilghman, who was the founding director of the institute and became president of the University in 2001, and James Broach, who is interim director. Botstein's appointment will begin July 1, 2003.
"It is an exciting moment for the institute, as the doors open this fall, to have a director of such distinction," said Tilghman. "David Botstein is one of the nation's most distinguished scientists and has a great love of undergraduate teaching as well as a wonderful track record of training graduate students."
Princeton established the genomics institute in 1999 and is now completing construction of a building for it, the Carl Icahn Laboratory. The institute's mission is to build on the recently completed genome projects and investigate how networks of genes work together to create complex biological systems.
Botstein, who is the Stanford Ascherman, M.D., Professor of Genetics at Stanford University, is uniquely positioned to lead that effort, said Tilghman. He has made fundamental contributions to modern genetics, including the discovery of many yeast and bacterial genes and the establishment of key techniques that are commonly used today. In addition, in 1980, Botstein and three colleagues proposed a method for mapping genes that laid the groundwork for the Human Genome Project.
A paper describing the technique was "the beginning of modern human genetics," said Tilghman. "Without it, we would not have had the Human Genome Project." Botstein went on to serve, with Tilghman, on a National Research Council committee that recommended the start of the Human Genome Project and another committee that served as an advisory council for the project. At the same time, Botstein was a leading scientist in mapping and sequencing the yeast genome, which, in 1996, was the first large eucaryotic genome to be sequenced.
"He has been a leader in thinking about the databases that are necessary in a post-genome era to collate and integrate all of the data that are coming in from so many sources," said Tilghman.
Throughout his work, said Tilghman, Botstein has been effective at integrating approaches from disciplines outside biology, such as physics and engineering. An emphasis on such interdisciplinary research has been a defining feature of Princeton's genomics institute since its founding. "He understands both the enormous promise of that kind of research and the difficulty of it. He doesn't underestimate how hard it is," said Tilghman.
Botstein received his bachelor's degree from Harvard University and doctoral degree from the University of Michigan, before teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1967 to 1988. He then served as vice president for science at the biotechnology company Genentech for two years before joining the faculty at the Stanford School of Medicine. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine and has received numerous awards.
Botstein said he is attracted to Princeton by the opportunities for both research and teaching. "The emergence of the data from the Human Genome Project completely changes the way biology can and will be done," said Botstein. "The question of what kind of preparation young people should have in order to enter into this exciting new world requires serious thought."
Top-notch research and teaching go hand-in-hand, said Botstein. "My experience and the experience of the people around me is that students ask very good questions, and you know you are in an area in which not enough is understood when you can't give a straight answer to a relatively simple question. Those, it seems to me, should be in the top rank of research questions."
At MIT, Botstein developed an innovative series of undergraduate courses called "project labs," which emphasized current research questions and cutting-edge techniques. Botstein said he hopes to develop similar labs at Princeton and challenge students to address the same kinds of questions being investigated by the institute's faculty.
In such labs, "students would have to face all of the problems of taking an organism whose genetic sequence had just been determined and asking at a very global level what do all its genes do," he said. "But in order to do it, they need skills that go beyond just being able to pipette. They'll have to have some facility with computing, with the relevant statistics, with microbiology. So they'll be faced with the interdisciplinary problem right from the beginning. For those with talent for it, I think that will guide their subsequent choice of how to educate themselves in a much better way than following in the path of standard disciplines."
Princeton established the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics with the support of a gift from alumnus Peter Lewis and named it in memory of Lewis' classmate Paul Sigler, a leading structural biologist who died in 2000. Several faculty members have been appointed to the institute so far. Ultimately, the institute will consist of 12 to 15 research groups with expertise in a range of disciplines.