President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Biology's Changing Landscape
June 4, 2003
On Thursday, May 8, we officially celebrated the opening of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the Carl Icahn Laboratory. The timing of this dedication coincides with important landmarks in the history of molecular biology. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James D. Watson and just this spring scientists completed the sequence of the human genome. We are now officially in the post-genome sequencing era, and the faculty and students in the Lewis-Sigler Institute are in a wonderful position to tackle entirely new questions about the fundamental nature of organisms that could not be asked in the past.
For, looming on the near horizon is a fundamental paradigm shift in biology. In the past biologists approached the study of an organism by studying genes or proteins in isolation from one another. I spent the last 25 years studying in great detail the structure and regulation of a handful of genes, ignoring the fact that my gene was one of 35,000 in the mouse. Metaphorically, molecular biologists were like blind men surrounding an elephant, each one touching a different part of the elephant, and therefore describing the elephant in very different ways. As a result of the enormous amount of information that is rapidly accumulating about the component molecules of living things, we now have the possibility of knowing all the genes and proteins expressed in a cell, and we can begin to ask entirely new kinds of questions. Does the cell coordinate the activities of all these molecules? Is there a conductor orchestrating the music of the cell, or is it a cacophony with the loudest instrument winning the day? Using a different metaphor, this paradigm shift is the difference between taking the radio apart and putting it back together.
What has emerged in large part thanks to the human genome project is a new brand of biology that is far more quantitative. It calls upon biologists who have much more rigorous training in mathematics and in computer science and who have the capacity to extract information from large data sets and to create theoretical models for experimentalists to test. The close interplay between theory, modeling, and experiment has dominated many other branches of science, particularly physics and astrophysics, but it had little impact on biology until now. The genome sequence has changed all that and has created exciting scientific problems that will be solved by close collaboration between traditional biologists who have deep understanding of the organism and scientists with more analytical and theoretical bents.
If this multidisciplinary approach defines the landscape for biology’s future, Rafael Viñoly’s design of the Carl Icahn Laboratory spectacularly succeeds in providing a physical space that will foster this intellectual agenda. In his address at the dedication, Viñoly expressed his pleasure working on this project with the University as a client because we knew what we wanted—and we did. We wanted a facility that would physically embody the lowering of the intellectual barriers among disciplines; where seniors and graduate students conducting their thesis work in molecular biology, physics, chemistry, engineering and computer science would not only encounter one another, but often find themselves working on the same bench and sharing the same office. All the lab spaces are designed to be maximally flexible, so they can be set up to accommodate the needs of scientists of any discipline, from fume hoods for chemists to vibration-free benches for physicists. The offices of faculty members are not adjacent to each scientist’s lab space, as is often the case in large labs. Instead, they are grouped in their own blocks of space, requiring people to walk back and forth from lab to office. The curve of the Icahn Laboratory shapes a two-story atrium that provides a rich array of common spaces for collegial discussion and serendipitous encounters—not to mention the ingredient necessary for all good science discussions, great coffee. The very fact that one can stand on one side of the atrium, and see the laboratories on the other side, helps reinforce the theme of communal activity.
The institute has an important teaching agenda as well, and one that is passionately embraced by its new director, David Botstein, arriving in July to become the Anthony B. Evnin ’62 Professor of Genomics. For the last 25 years students in the life sciences have had an educational experience similar to the blind men and the elephant I mentioned earlier. Mathematics, physics, computer science, engineering, biology—all of these fundamental elements of scientific exploration have been taught as distinct and unrelated subjects. For the future we will need to continue to ground our students in one of the fundamental disciplines, but to teach in such a way that they make the essential connections to underlying scientific principles and techniques that cut across the conventional disciplines. Teaching in an experimental science like biology means doing, and at Professor Botstein’s urging, Viñoly has designed a project-oriented laboratory in the institute to help us prepare students for interdisciplinary science.
I hope that the next time you come to campus you will visit the Icahn Laboratory and see Viñoly’s architectural expression of our hopes for genomics. Along with Scully Hall and the new dormitory on Elm Drive, the home of the Lewis-Sigler Institute forms an ellipse that embraces the University playing fields. It creates an elegant reshaping of a familiar physical landscape. Thanks in particular to the generosity of Carl Icahn ’57 and Peter B. Lewis ’55, we aim to have the same success in reshaping both the teaching and research in this exciting new post-genome sequencing era.