For Tilghman, there's a science to the presidency
Princeton NJ -- Shirley M. Tilghman may be preparing to give up the keys to her laboratory to devote her full attention to the presidency of Princeton. But she is not letting go of her lifelong passion for science.
She taught a portion of the introductory molecular biology course this semester and supervised senior thesis projects. She also has spoken about science to high school students, discussed questions of science policy in the media and in the political arena, and worked to address such issues as gender equity in the sciences.
"I am a proselytizer for the excitement of science and for the idea that seeking careers in science is a really exciting thing for students to do," Tilghman said of visits she made to high schools in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in conjunction with meetings with alumni in those cities.
"I would love to see more minority students interested in careers in science," she added, noting that she hopes her talks might encourage potential young scientists who could then become role models.
The need to bring greater diversity to the sciences also was behind her establishment in October of the President's Task Force on the Status of Women in Natural Sciences and Engineering at Princeton. The committee, which grew out of an initiative by President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro, is looking at ways to attract and retain talented women in fields that continue to be disproportionately represented by men.
Tilghman said she plans in the coming years to become more involved in contributing to public policy discussions and noted that science policy would be a natural area for her to address. The work that Shapiro did in leading the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton exemplifies the impact university presidents can have on public policy, she said.
"If there were an opportunity for me to play a role like the one Harold played, I would welcome it," she said.
Colleagues have come to expect to see Tilghman at many of the scientific lectures and symposiums on campus and for her to ask penetrating questions that help shape the discussion. "She has a tremendous intellect and a real ability to catalyze and engage others in intellectual exchange," said Angela Creager, associate professor of history and a historian of science, noting that Tilghman's comments helped reframe the debate over stem cell research during a recent cross-disciplinary meeting between scientists and humanities scholars.
"It was just one of those 'aha!' moments," Creager said of the discussion that arose after Tilghman spoke.
Tilghman also has been bringing that ability directly to students in the classroom. In April, Tilghman delivered the lectures for MOL 214, "Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology," which she co-taught with professor Leon Rosenberg and department chair Thomas Shenk. "I love teaching, and I think I would greatly miss it if I had rationalized to myself that this year was too busy to teach," she said. "If anything, I'd like to do a little more next year."
Her most direct involvement in science has been in continuing to supervise the research of the members of her lab, which focuses on questions of genetics and development. Tilghman has spent every Friday, with very few exceptions, with her students in Lewis Thomas Laboratory. A central part of the day is a lab meeting in which one student presents his or her work and receives critical feedback from Tilghman and the others.
The arrangement has worked well, said fourth-year graduate student Scott Steele. He noted that even before becoming president Tilghman was very busy with outside commitments and was good at setting aside uninterrupted time to work with her lab members. "She has made the transition appear seamless," said Steele.
This "double life," as Tilghman called it in a recent issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, requires her to alternate between thinking as a scientific "burrower," who narrowly focuses on one subject, and being an administrative generalist, who deals with the widest possible range of issues from appointing new faculty to reviewing building plans.
For those who have worked with Tilghman over the years, however, the transition seems natural and not as removed as it might seem from the talents that contributed to her success as a scientist. That was a common observation among about 70 of Tilghman's former lab members and a few of her early mentors who gathered on campus in April for a symposium to honor her as she concludes her career as a research scientist.
Richard Hanson, who was Tilghman's doctoral thesis adviser at Temple University and is spending the year on campus as a visiting lecturer, told the group it was no surprise to see Tilghman in her current position.
"People ask me what Shirley was like as a student, and I say, 'She had the same wonderful qualities she has now: her charisma with people, her intelligence, her great ideas and her imagination,'" said Hanson, who is now a professor of medicine at the Case Western School of Medicine.
Even Tilghman's approach to narrowly focused scientific questions reflected an "altruistic" interest in developing ideas and techniques that would be useful beyond her own laboratory, said Jean Vacher, who was one of Tilghman's first postdocs when she set up her lab at Princeton in 1986.
"She is open-minded and working for the community," said Vacher, who heads a laboratory at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal. "Now as president she is going to do the same thing, and do it well."
President Tilghman's first year
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Editor: Ruth Stevens