An interview with Torsten Wiesel

Recently Geoffrey Montgomery, assistant to the president for special projects, and Mariellen Gallagher, vice president of communications and public affairs, met with retiring President Torsten Wiesel to get his thoughts on his presidential tenure at RU.

GM: Before becoming president of RU, did you ever envision yourself as the head of an institution?

TW: Not really, I didn't have any ambitions in that direction. I was chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard. But there the current chairman, being good friends with me, asked me if I would consider running the place for a while. So, it was more a matter of collegiality than one of me striving for the position.

In some ways I feel that this presidency [at RU] has been a little bit like that-it has been quite congenial and collegial.

GM: You've said that in your Harvard days, a lot of administration was done in the hallway. Here at RU, it is a little bit more formal.

TW: You are right. It's a bigger assignment because being president is a greater responsibility. Here there is such a broad range of science-from physics to clinical science. I was trained in medicine, but my training was a long time ago. And the whole field of molecular biology and genetics has developed during my time as a scientist. This has been one of the great challenges of this job.

In some ways I have felt that I was not particularly suited in terms of my scientific competence to have such a broad mandate. Therefore, I have come to rely very much on my colleagues on the faculty for consultation and discussion; I also consulted with scientists from outside the university for advice.

One of the attractive aspects of being president is that it has expanded my scientific interests. As a working scientist, doing or discussing new experiments every day, you rarely have the time or opportunity to venture too far from the questions you are studying in your laboratory.

GM: Are there any areas of science, outside your own, that you have been particularly attracted to-that if you were young and starting out today you could imagine yourself going into?

TW: Genetics is probably the area that has come to the forefront for all of us in biology. Certainly if I did start out today, genetics would be part of my armament for studying problems in neuroscience. But I still would go into neuroscience.

GM: Was your background in psychiatry of any help to you in this job?

TW: (Laughs) I think perhaps my attitude with people, my willingness and interest in listening to them, has been of some help. I should say that I was never a card-carrying psychiatrist. I never committed myself to psychiatry as a profession-but perhaps that training does give you a more open perspective about people.

MG: Have you found the people here interesting?

TW: Yes. Scientists in general are curious about things, so I feel very happy and comfortable here being around the people in this scientific village and interacting with them. I really enjoy my day-to-day interaction with the nonscientists on campus. I feel a sense of camaraderie with everyone. It's a warm place.

GM: Was faculty and administration interaction enhanced by the academic planning process?

TW: Yes, I think the plan was very important, and the process of academic planning was more important than the plan itself, both to the faculty and to the Board. The faculty forum that we began last year for the heads of laboratories was also important. I'm pleased that it was organized through a faculty initiative. And much more could be done.

MG: Is there a Rockefeller tradition of education and, if so, can you describe it?

TW: I think the hallmark of The Rockefeller University is how we leave people very much on their own in the labs. I think most student learning takes place in the labs. In contrast to many other universities, we pay the students a stipend for six years instead of putting them on research grants. In many places, an incoming student would be supported for a year or two when they are given course work; then, when they get in the lab, the university tells them they have to be supported by a grant. This, therefore, does not allow the student free choice to study what he or she wants to do, and free choice often leads to important discoveries.

MG: What has been your proudest accomplishment as president?

TW: I have been very pleased with the appointments that have been made during my presidency. We now have a younger group of faculty. The average age decreased by about a decade. I'm particularly pleased that during my administration three women have received tenured appointments. I have also been proud of the creation of conceptual centers in different areas of science; the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology was the first; it's the kind of thing, I think, a place like this should do. The center has been able to get grants from foundations to support scientists who are doing very interesting work, but who don't have such an easy time getting money from the NIH because of the unconventional nature of their studies.

I am also very pleased with the bridge and the plaza [renovation project]. It is not an academic achievement, but I certainly had to fight for that. I am very grateful to the Board and the community for their help. I also think that the expansion of the children's school is really important because you want to have young families come here. Many scientists are married to other scientists, so you have to accommodate their needs, more so in this country than in Europe. I'm also proud of the dining room here in Caspary; we tried to create an atmosphere for the scientists and others working at the university that is friendly and warm, and again I wish I had done more of this. It sets a tone that the university community enjoys, and I think it helps to create an environment where good science can flourish.

GM: Isn't that part of the history of RU-freeing scientists to do creative work?

TW: Yes. Part of my task has been to avoid burdening the faculty with administrative tasks and to allow the investigators to concentrate on their science.

GM: Has that helped you recruit outstanding scientists here-that they saw this as a place where they could really concentrate on their science?

TW: I think so. It is an interesting process-the dynamics of an institution. Most institutions have periods of ascent and periods of decline. Harvard Medical School as a whole, for instance, has always been at the leading edge because it is so big, even if different departments at different times have gone into decline. But we are so small by comparison that mistakes can be critical-losing a few major laboratories can change the tenor of science on the whole campus. Excellence is a delicate flower. You really need to be sensitive to what is required to give people a sense of freedom and a sense that they are in an intellectual community that is supportive and stimulating.

MG: What's your secret?

TW: I have probably been lucky. Money has come in, so we have had more appointments, and there has not been unpleasant competition between different research areas. I appreciate my relationship with the Board, which has given me strong and consistent support. I very much enjoyed my interactions with David Rockefeller and Richard Furlaud, Chairman of the Board. To me, the most surprising thing is that I have been able to raise so much money. I can't understand it at all.

MG: People don't donate unless they are confident about the vision of the place.

TW: We have a very good development office. Marnie [Imhoff] is wonderful, and Fred Bohen and others have been a wonderful management team. They deserve a great deal of the credit.

MG: People talk about your vitality and your zest for life. At a Women and Science forum, you said, "Take a baby aspirin every day." Do you?

TW: Yes, I take a baby aspirin every day. It seems to me that some people are old when they are 20, while other people keep having an interest in life. I suppose that I am still interested in exploring, learning.

MG: What's next?

TW: I will have an office here in the Rockefeller Research Building, close to Charles Gilbert, with whom I collaborated for many years. He's working on systems neuroscience, studying the visual cortex, which of course has been my major scientific interest over the years. So I think this will be an ideal environment for me both collegially and in terms of my research.

I have outside obligations, too. I've been elected president of the International Brain Research Organization, which is based in Paris, and I will continue to be involved in the Pew Charitable Trusts, chairing the scientific advisory board for Pew Scholars and the Pew Latin American Fellows program. I've also been elected the president of the Neuroscience Division of the McKnight Foundation; they give money for assistant professors and also to neuroscientists in mid-career, which is very important, because most private programs just support faculty in the early years of their career. I also chair the Committee for Human Rights associated with the NAS, NAE and IOM. I don't think it has any relationship to this job, but I don't mind using my Nobel Prize for good purposes.

MG: People usually work on their golf game when they retire. It doesn't sound as though you are retiring.

TW: It will be nice not to be so scheduled. I have a lot of reading to do. I have not been able to keep up with the scientific literature very well. You know, the presidency is basically a service job. You are serving a community. It has been an assignment that has given me a sense of responsibility and duty to try to do as well as possible. I feel a little like an artist who has been asked to be the curator of a museum that is devoted to living artists doing all kinds of interesting and important work. I'm very pleased that it has gone well, but once you have done science and felt the day-to-day excitement of doing experiments and making discoveries, nothing else comes close.

Return to New Professsorship to Honor President Wiesel.

Last updated: 20 November 1998 URL: Contact the Office of Public Affairs Copyright 1998, The Rockefeller University