An Interview with New RU President Arnold Levine

Before taking office, President Levine met with Mariellen Gallagher, vice president of communications and public affairs; Joseph Bonner, acting director of communications; and Lisa Stillman, editor of News&Notes, to share his thoughts about his new role at The Rockefeller University.

Q: I thought we'd start at the beginning and ask how you got into science. I've heard rumors that you wanted to be a dentist.

AL:It's not that I wanted to be a dentist. My parents actually put a fair amount of pressure on me to go to medical school. But I didn't want to go to medical school, so I felt that a compromise would be to go to dental school. It'd be easier than medical school, I perceived, and I would have time to do other things that would interest me. But in my third year of college, as happens to so many people, I met a wonderful professor, Mildred Schelig, an M.D. who taught microbiology. It wasn't the content of her course that was so important, because her medical education stopped in 1924, it was the approach and the excitement of science that she relayed. For the first time, I fell in love with the laboratory.However, I still applied to dental schools and got into the University of Pennsylvania's. What I found there was that I loved my courses in biochemistry, microbiology and pathology, but I disliked my courses in operative dentistry. At the end of the first semester I went to a professor of biochemistry, whose work I had reproduced as an undergraduate, and asked him if I could join his laboratory. He was nice enough to allow me to come into the lab, and they put me in graduate school without my even taking the Graduate Record Exams. This was a little bit to the chagrin of my mother and my sister who really felt that I was always going to be poor because I had chosen to become an academic, but fortunately my fiancé (now my wife, Linda) really backed me up. It was a wonderful choice, and it was completely serendipitous that I ended up in the lab that I wanted to be in. I really began my career working on viruses and cancer right away.

Q: In the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers, Groucho becomes a college president and decides his first priority is a winning football team. What's your first priority?

AL: My first priority is getting to know the faculty and the staff, and to get the feel of the culture of the institution and not to act fast before I have accomplished that. Rockefeller University has been an extraordinary place for nearly 100 years. Its style is very free and open, with no departmental structures, where 74 heads of lab report directly to the president of the university. Harvard Business School would call that structure a nightmare. But it's what makes this university special, that there are no layers, so the faculty can move rapidly to the left and the right if they have to. Maybe that's our football team.

We're actually in a planning process now. The first component is that I've met with about 70 faculty members to discuss their research and where their research is going, where they think the university should go. Secondly, we have set up three faculty and trustee committees to discuss these issues. I really like the idea that both the faculty and the trustees are on this committee, because the process of setting academic priorities and financial goals is a partnership between them. Thirdly, I've heard from staff around the campus who have had wonderful ideas and suggestions. I've also met with the graduate students and will meet shortly with the postdoctoral fellows. I really want to hear from a wide constituency across the campus. By June [1999], we will have a fairly explicit three-to-five-year plan and a flexible ten-year plan. Over five years, about 10 faculty members will likely go emeritus, so actually those years are, by and large, about replacing faculty.

I also think that we want to keep some funds and some resources aside so that if something new comes along, we can strike when the iron is hot. I'll give you a good example. I don't think anybody expected the cloning of animals when Dolly the sheep came along. And Dolly the sheep is not a finished product; there are really a lot of very interesting questions left. So it's just the beginning of that field, and we have to see if we want to make a commitment to that field. I might add that we would work with mice. I don't think you'll see a flock of sheep running around campus.

Q: What do you think about the general culture of the university?

AL:I've been really pleased. First of all the administrative staff is terrific. You meet people who have been here 25, 35 years. They care about the institution and its goals. And it doesn't matter whether you mow the lawn or you take care of the trees, or do the secretarial work or do the administrative work or are in the laboratory; the 1,300 people here on campus are pulling together toward a common goal, and they love the place.

Secondly, the vitality of the science is terrific here. We've built, under Torsten's tenure, in two areas that are the strongest probably in the world: structural biology and neurobiology. One of the other things about Torsten's presidency that has been so extraordinary is the new collaborative spirit. So Rockefeller's changing, and the culture is changing a little bit-all for the good, because science is changing, and you have to be able to go where the science is leading you.

Q: Where do you think science is going?

AL:You can date modern biology to 1944 right here with Avery, MacLeod and McCarty discovering that DNA is the genetic information, and then to 1953, with Watson and Crick determining the structure of DNA. I went to graduate school in 1961, just when the whole field of molecular genetics was opening up; we've seen an enormous technological and intellectual revolution in the biological sciences. Biology has been the dominant science of the last half of the 20th century, just as physics was in the first half. So we're at a very interesting point. We will have, by the year 2004 or 2005, the complete sequence of the genome of human beings, and we're gaining the technology to look at combinatorial genetics and combinatorial expression of genes, maybe through DNA chips or high frequency sequencing. It's these complex combinatorics that make us what we are. Knowing the whole sequence of the genome will allow us to focus in rapidly. And having that information base changes the way you do science. We need to train our graduate students and our postdoctoral fellows in new technologies, in stronger quantitative aspects. They almost need to feel the quantification that different genes bring to biology. Perhaps we need stronger chemistry and math backgrounds. We certainly need stronger computational skills.

Q: Do you think basic science loses a lot of talent because of the economic pressures on students?

AL:(nods) At Princeton, I have seen undergraduates move back to medical schools and away from academic settings. I think that comes from a need for security in this generation; they put a very high premium on security. It's sad to see a 21-year-old worry too much about security. I think they should feel they can leave dental school to go to graduate school, as I did. For someone who has the credentials to be admitted to Rockefeller University, the future is actually quite rosy. In the biological sciences, the best universities have 95 percent of their students going on to stay in the sciences.

Q: How did you find out about this job and what made you decide to go for it?

AL:I got a phone call from Joe Goldstein, who is one of the trustees here. Princeton had asked me to build a research and teaching institute for physics, chemistry and biology. It is a little bit, if you think about it, like Rockefeller University; they were trying to create the kind of environment that is very interdisciplinary. When I got my phone call from Joe, I was intrigued because I know many people here on the campus, lots of good friends who are faculty members here, and I knew of course about the institution. I don't think anyone who gets a phone call saying, "Would you like to talk about the job of president of Rockefeller University?" would say any thing but, "Yes, I'd like to talk about the job."

I should back up and tell you about my relationship with [Board Chairman Emeritus] Dick Furlaud. He was the CEO of Squibb in 1984 when I came back to Princeton to build the new molecular biology department, and the very first endowed chair to the molecular biology department was the E.R. Squibb and Son endowed chair. It set the tone so that pharmaceutical companies all over New Jersey gave endowed chairs to our new department and allowed us to get off the ground.

Q: People describe you as an entrepreneur, and as you describe your leadership, that word comes to mind. Would you describe yourself as entrepreneurial?

AL:Entrepreneurial in the sense that I really enjoy building something that works. I've had now two opportunities to build departments. The first was at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I took over in 1979 as chairman of the microbiology department. It was a small department, with some very good people in it, but it really needed shaping and direction, and that was a great challenge because it wasn't an institution like Princeton or Rockefeller with long traditions of excellence. The faculty and I made a decision very early on that we wanted to specialize in one area and be the best in the world. We chose virology, and out of the department of about 15 people, we hired about 12 of them as virologists, and we really became the best and broadest department of virology in the world. The State University never gave us enough money, and I had to raise money to do the things we wanted to do, to be the things we wanted to be. Princeton was quite the opposite. I was called back to Princeton in 1984, and there we raised $42 million. We were a faculty of only 35 people, but we were in the middle of the pharmaceutical industry of New Jersey, and we were the best game not just in town, but in the whole area. So I visited the pharmaceutical industries often. Today Squibb gives a million dollars a year to support the graduate program at Princeton, and every one of the major pharmaceutical companies in New Jersey has made contributions to the department. The lead gift for the new building, which came to be called the Lewis Thomas Laboratory, was a gift that was given by Laurence Rockefeller, a Princeton alumnus. The department's focus, the field that Princeton became well known for and that led to the Nobel Prize, was developmental genetics.

Q: Will you have a lab here?

AL:Yes. My lab right now is at Princeton University. I need to identify some lab space, and I will bring the lab down to about six or seven people. I can't give up the lab either psychologically or emotionally. I really love doing the science. I love to be a part of it. I actually think it's very good for the institution to have a leader who is involved in the science on a daily basis. I enjoy talking about research and the new things that my lab finds, and analyzing the data and struggling to get the answers. And that type of psychotherapy is essential for the president's job.

Q: What was it like to discover p53, the emotions?

AL: We discovered it in 1979, and we weren't quite sure at the time exactly what it meant. I remember vividly because recently we pulled out the old gels and notebooks from that time. I had a terrific graduate student, Danny Linzer. I played the skeptic and he played the graduate student, and we had a wonderful drama for a period of three months while he tried to prove to me that this was something new and real. Even when we were certain that it was new, we didn't know that we had something important. It took 10 years for us to understand how important it is. By 1989, we had found that p53, whatever it was, was behaving like a tumor suppressor-that it prevented cancer, and that a virus could inactivate it. Then I went to a meeting with Bert Vogelstein, who is at Johns Hopkins, and his lab had found that it was behaving like a tumor suppressor in humans. So we had come at it in two very different ways: he in human cancer, and we by following virology. That's when elation really came forward. Over the next three or four years we got the surprise of our lives when we found that 50 to 55 percent of all human cancer had mutations of this gene. I don't think there is any feeling you can have that is comparable. Everybody in science works very, very hard, and everyone makes important contributions, and you've got to be lucky to make a contribution that also has a medical or clinical impact. In some sense that's the skill of choosing, and in another sense that's the luck of being at the right place at the right time. I've always felt that I've been at the right place at the right time.

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Last updated: 4 December 1998
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