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This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on December 21, 2020 at 4:20 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President

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Dear colleagues,

Greetings! The winter break is upon us and this will be my last campus message of 2020, providing an opportunity to reflect on the last 12 tumultuous months which have been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the rhythms of daily life around the world and on our campus.

The last two weeks have witnessed increases in the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the US to previously unimaginable numbers, with >240,000 new cases and 3,400 deaths reported in recent days. Hospitals in parts of the country are literally beyond capacity to care for severely ill people, with many others approaching these conditions. Case numbers in NYC continue to increase, with the percentage of positive tests increasing from ~1.2% in early October to what has been a plateau at an average of ~4% over the last several weeks. While the daily incidence of new cases diagnosed per capita in the city (40 per 100,000 per day) remains low by US standards, this level is ~10-fold higher than we experienced in early September. There is simply much more virus in the local environment, and proportionately greater risk of infection. Our campus is not immune to this increase, and in the last two weeks five Rockefeller employees have been diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2, including three members of research labs and two employees in the CFC, the first cases in this latter unit. Fortunately, since the start of the pandemic, all Rockefeller employees who have been infected have recovered, with only one requiring a short hospitalization. Equally important, there have been no clusters of cases and no evidence of viral transmission on campus, which provides strong evidence of the safety of our campus and testimony to the success of the combination of regular testing of the entire campus population, rigorous adherence to best practices of universal wearing of masks indoors and out, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and staying at home if you have any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or have had significant contact with a known case

I am compelled to remind you that travel and family gatherings over Thanksgiving produced a surge of cases across the nation and at Rockefeller, and there is great apprehension regarding what the upcoming longer holiday will bring. I urge everyone not to travel over the upcoming holidays, and if you must, to be extra-vigilant. In particular, avoid exposure to large groups indoors, particularly when unmasked as at meals; these gatherings have been major sources of viral transmission. We are likely approaching the peak of the pandemic in different parts of the US over the next few months, and this is the time to be maximally cautious. I remind you that it is your responsibility to be aware of state and Rockefeller regulations regarding quarantine following travel, exposure to large gatherings, or significant exposure to individuals known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Mitigating this grim news is the remarkable success in vaccine development, a great scientific achievement. As you know, two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, both using a novel approach using mRNA encoding SARS-CoV-2 spike protein enveloped in lipids, have shown ~95% efficacy in preventing symptomatic infection, with adverse effects generally limited to mild symptoms. As of Saturday, both of these vaccines are now approved for use in the US and are being distributed across the country. These vaccines will first be given to front-line health care workers, then people at highest risk of severe courses of disease. It is anticipated that healthy people under age 65 will likely gain access in the spring and summer. This remarkable development provides well-grounded reason for optimism that the pandemic will be controlled over the coming months, with the major remaining questions being how rapidly production and delivery of approved vaccines can be scaled up, and whether additional vaccines will prove to have sufficient efficacy to meaningfully contribute to the vaccination effort.

The reality of highly effective and safe vaccines provides strong exhortation to all of us to double down on our vigilance through the coming critical months to protect ourselves and one another from infection until we can all gain immunity through vaccination. The road ahead is shorter than the one behind us and every day brings us closer to the goal. I urge everyone to stay strong and committed to staying safe and protecting one another and to get vaccinated as soon as you are eligible.

I note that while the holidays can be a period of rejuvenation, they can also be a source of stress and isolation for many, particularly during this challenging year. I encourage all of you to reach out to friends, colleagues, and neighbors who may be struggling.

Over the last year we have all benefitted from the remarkable efforts of many in our community. We are grateful to all on-site essential personnel, many of whom lived on campus during the darkest days last winter and spring to keep the University secure and operational, including those in Security, Plant Ops, Housing, Lab Safety, Purchasing, Facilities, and CBC staff. We are similarly grateful to the teachers and staff of the CFC who re-opened in July for the benefit of the youngest children in our community and their parents; the Occupational Health Services team, which has been stalwart in testing, contact tracing, monitoring, advising, and caring for members of our community throughout the pandemic; Tom Sakmar who, with OHS, managed testing on campus at the outset of the pandemic when tests were virtually impossible to obtain; Bob Darnell and his team, who devised a novel saliva test that is simple to perform and highly sensitive, enabling weekly use of the test by all who are coming to campus in order to keep our campus safe and confident that the virus is not lurking among us; the staff of the Hospital who have performed critical translational research during the pandemic; Virginia Huffman and the HR team who worked with the city to get permission to reopen the CFC early and safely, and initiated new K-8th grade remote learning pods on campus in collaboration with the YMCA to support older children and their parents, and have increased mental health services to help those in need; Jeanne Garbarino and her RockEDU colleagues, who adapted quickly to continue to provide high-school students across the city with online science learning experiences; the leaders and staff of our Resource Centers who provided unflagging support for a remarkable year of scientific progress; and the members of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee headed by Amy Wilkerson, who met weekly throughout this year to keep the campus safe and functioning optimally. I’d also like to commend the many individuals and offices that have managed to work mostly remotely without missing a beat in support of our mission, including the Investment Office, the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration, and the Rockefeller University Press, as just a few examples. Lastly, I am deeply grateful to our amazing trustees who have been extraordinarily committed and generous in supporting all the efforts of the University in these challenging times. I trust that you, like me, are so grateful to all and proud to be a colleague to such talented and dedicated people.

This year was also one in which systemic issues of inequality came to the fore, leading to much-needed discussions and actions regarding equity, inclusion, and justice, both nationally and at Rockefeller, prompted in part by the murder of George Floyd. On our campus, conversations around these issues, galvanized by the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative, have prompted new commitments and actions to ensure equality of opportunity, promotion of diversity, and treatment of everyone in our community with dignity and respect. These issues will remain an important focus in 2021 and beyond.

The tremendous efforts of our community over the last year have supported and enabled the great science that is the pulse of our campus. The last year has been replete with transformative discoveries. As testimony to the creative spark on campus, at the start of the pandemic, 23 Heads of Laboratory pivoted to initiate work on SARS-CoV-2, and this work continued unabated through the depths of the pandemic last winter and spring. The resulting research has been remarkable for its breadth, quality and collaborative nature, involving virologists, immunologists, geneticists, biochemists, structural biologists, pharmacologists, physicians, and nurses here at Rockefeller, at other nearby institutions, and across the globe. The results of these efforts are still pouring out of our labs, and below I mention just of few of the highlights:

– Identification and cloning of genes encoding highly potent monoclonal antibodies that neutralize SARS-CoV-2, along with their structures bound to spike protein epitopes. These antibodies are entering human trials for treatment and prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infection (labs of Nussenzweig, Caskey, Bieniasz, Hatziioannou, Rice).

– Discovery of inherited or acquired deficiency of type-1 interferons in ~15% of people with severe COVID-19, explaining why some people develop severe disease while others have mild or no symptoms (lab of Casanova with collaborators Rice, Lifton).

– Discovery of host factors that are required for viral ‘life cycles’ by genome-wide CRISPR-Cas9 knockout screens, which identified TMEM41B as a host gene required by all coronaviruses and flaviviruses for completion of the viral cycle, along with other genes (Rice lab).

– Determination of the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA-dependent RNA polymerase and associated helicase bound to its RNA template, revealing how these two proteins work together to unwind and replicate duplex viral RNA (Campbell and Darst labs).

– Identification of small molecule leads for novel inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 enzymes that are required for viral replication, including the RNA helicase (Kapoor lab) and RNA methyltransferase (Tuschl lab).

Of course, not everyone has been working on COVID-19, and despite the pandemic there have continued to be exceptional advances in many other fields at Rockefeller over the last year. Among the nearly 800 papers published thus far this calendar year, a few highlights include:

– Discovery that varied expression of an orphan G protein-coupled receptor in the thalamus produces variation in working memory by altering synchronization of activity of a neural circuit connecting the thalamus and prefrontal cortex (Rajasethupathy lab).

– Discovery that repeated antigen challenge activates memory B cell populations that tightly bind antigen, but these B cells do not typically re-enter germinal centers in lymph nodes for further rounds of affinity maturation, and the diversity of memory B cell populations is not engaged on repeated exposure. This identifies a bottleneck to the development of highly diversified antibodies that may be needed to effectively combat some infectious agents (Victora lab).

– Discovery that mechanical force applied to cells can change gene expression by force-mediated alteration of F-actin promoting binding to LIM2 domains in proteins such as the transcription factor FHL2, thereby confining FHL2 to the cytoplasm and preventing its nuclear transcriptional functions (Alushin lab).

– Discovery of metabolic dependencies in cancers by CRISPR-based identification of genes essential for cancer cell proliferation has implicated new genes that regulate metabolic pathways, including a previously uncharacterized gene required for cancer cell proliferation in conditions of cholesterol depletion. This general approach has shown great potential for identifying new targets for cancer therapeutics (Birsoy lab).

– Discovery that the BRCA2 gene product, well-known for its role in DNA repair via homologous recombination, also has a previously unrecognized role in protecting newly replicated DNA at stalled replication forks due to interstrand DNA crosslinks (Smorgozewska lab).

– Characterization of a gut-brain neural circuit by which the bacterial and nutrient composition of gut contents are conveyed to the brain via an afferent parasympathetic pathway, with an efferent sympathetic output that modulates gut motility and nutrient absorption (Mucida lab).

– Characterization of the kinetic cycle of ABC transporters, a large family of molecular pumps in plasma membranes. The combination of data on structure of different states of the pump and single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy to track specific conformational changes during the kinetic cycle showed for the first time how transporter substrate and ATP hydrolysis drive sequential conformational changes that produce transport (Liu and Chen labs).

– Discovery that reduced fat-cell lipolysis and thermogenesis in leptin deficiency is due to loss of sympathetic innervation of subcutaneous white and brown adipose tissue that can be restored by leptin administration via signaling in the brain (Friedman and P. Cohen labs).

– By simultaneously measuring the activity of all of the neurons of larval zebrafish, the Vaziri lab was able to “read the mind” of individual larval fish to accurately predict the timing and direction that larvae would turn in response to a noxious stimulus. The study identified the key role of the cerebellum in this decision (Vaziri lab).

– Discovery of a viral-encoded inhibitor of type VI-A CRISPR-Cas immunity that functions by binding CAS13, preventing its binding to target RNAs. This is a great example of the ongoing ‘arms race’ between viruses and bacteria (Marraffini lab).

– Discovery that breast and lung cancers can produce signals that induce endothelial cells to make guidance molecules that cancer cells can follow to find their way into the bloodstream, allowing them to metastasize to distant organs (Tavazoie lab).

– By sequencing and comparing the genomes of 363 diverse bird species, genetic novelties that have been fixed in particular lineages, and sequences that have been maintained by weak selection have been identified. These efforts provide an exceptional resource for understanding the evolution of distinct traits in nature (Jarvis lab).

– Discovery of distinct classes of neurons that enable mosquitos to distinguish between nectar and blood, a distinction required for mosquitos to obtain the distinctive sources of nutrition required for sustenance and support for egg development (Vosshall lab).

– Demonstration that loss of one functioning copy of the TINF2 gene, which results in increased risk of a wide variety of cancers, imparts its effect by increasing telomere length. This finding provides proof of the long-postulated idea that maintenance of long telomeres prevents normal cell death, allowing development of clones of cells that acquire sufficient mutations to develop into cancers (de Lange lab).

The research in Rockefeller labs has not gone unnoticed by the global scientific community, with a remarkable string of awards coming to our faculty this year. These awards include:

-The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, presented to Charlie Rice for his characterization of the hepatitis C virus genome, which led to therapies that cure without adverse effects virtually all people with this often fatal disease affecting 70 million people.

-The Canada Gairdner International Award, presented to Elaine Fuchs, for her studies elucidating the role of tissue stem cells in homeostasis, wound repair, inflammation and cancer.

– The Max Planck-Humboldt Medal, presented to Luciano Marraffini for his achievements in the research of the molecular gene scissors CRISPR/Cas.

– The Pradel Research Award for Neuroscience from the National Academy of Sciences, presented to Leslie Vosshall for her elucidation of neural mechanisms underlying feeding behavior of mosquitos.

– Leslie Vosshall also received this year’s W. Alden Spencer Award, presented by Columbia University in recognition of outstanding research contributions.

– Jean-Laurent Casanova’s discovery of inherited and acquired type 1 interferon deficiency in severe COVID-19 was highlighted in Nature magazine’s list of “10 remarkable discoveries from 2020” across all fields of science.

– Kivanç Birsoy received the The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science for his work identifying metabolic vulnerabilities in cancer and also the Mark Foundation’s Emerging Leader Award.

– Dave Allis was inducted into the National Academy of Medicine in recognition of his discovery of the role of covalent histone modifications in the regulation of gene expression.

– Shixin Liu received the Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research for his applications of biophysics to cancer.

– Jeremy Rock was named a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar for his development of CRISPR-Cas screens for understanding and treating tuberculosis.

– Li Zhao was named a Vallee Scholar for her use of bioinformatics to understand the origin and evolution of novel gene families.

– Paul Cohen received the Mark Foundation’s Emerging Leader Award and was also elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation for his work on fat cell development and function.

– Vanessa Ruta received the 2020 Larry Katz Prize given by Duke University to a neuroscientist whose work reflects openness to new ideas, creativity, and enthusiasm for technical and conceptual innovation.

– Winrich Freiwald was recognized with a 2020 Karl Spencer Lashley Award, given by the American Philosophical Society in recognition of research on the integrative neuroscience of behavior.

Rockefeller trainees were also recognized with prestigious awards for their accomplishments:

– Graduate Student Paul Muller in Daniel Mucida’s lab received the Weintraub Graduate Student Award, presented by the University of Washington, for his outstanding thesis research.

– Postdocs Amelia Escolano in Michel Nussenzweig’s lab and Marc Schneeberger Pané in Jeff Friedman’s lab were two of the three postdocs named Blavatnik Regional Award Finalists in recognition of their scientific excellence.

– Fangyu Liu, a recent graduate from Jue Chen’s lab, received one of six International Birnstiel Awards for Doctoral Studies in the Molecular Life Sciences. Fangyu was recognized for her work on cystic fibrosis.

In addition to these individual awards, Rockefeller has also been recognized for its overall scientific excellence. Objective measures of scientific impact based on citations of published research, conducted by Leiden University, the European U-Multirank consortium and U.S. News and World Report all found Rockefeller to be No.1 among US and world universities for having the highest fraction of papers in the top 10%, 5% and 1% of citations in their fields of research.

Also this year, two new extraordinary faculty members joined us following an extremely competitive international search led by Sean Brady:

This summer, we welcomed Jun Cao to campus. Jun has devised novel methods of combinatorial indexing for rapid and inexpensive production of single cell RNA sequencing and assessment of chromatin states. He has used these methods to define the development of the body’s diverse cell types and tissues in mouse and human. This work has important implications that he is pursuing for understanding human diseases ranging from autism to cancer.

And earlier this month Ekaterina Vinogradova was welcomed to campus. Katya is a chemical biologist who has designed novel chemical probes to alter the activity of proteins in different cell types, enabling the coupling of identification of important biological effects with small molecule probes that can serve as leads for further development as therapeutics.

I am thrilled to have such innovative new faculty join us, and I look forward to the growth and development of their programs in the coming years.

This year was also extremely successful for fundraising. Without the ability to hold in-person events, Marnie Imhoff and her colleagues in Development nimbly pivoted to a robust calendar of virtual events to keep friends and supporters of the University engaged. This has included a new series of webinars on the latest science in the COVID pandemic. Despite the challenges, the support of our trustees and benefactors in faculty recruitment, program development, COVID-19 research, and the 2020-2024 strategic plan has been nothing short of spectacular.

While the last year has been challenging on many fronts, we have much to look forward to in the coming year, in particular a gradual return toward normalcy as vaccination of the general public advances. While we have been resilient and productive as a community, we will continue to be challenged in the coming months by the effects of social isolation, particularly for those new to Rockefeller. I encourage everyone to increase efforts to remain connected to one another, make time to establish new acquaintances, and welcome newcomers into our community.

Thank you again for your strength in the face of adversity, for your camaraderie under trying circumstances, and for your ongoing commitment to excellence. Our strong sense of community, commitment to one another, and shared mission of Science for the Benefit of Humanity are today more vital than ever. I have no doubt that the world will emerge from the pandemic with an enhanced appreciation for the importance of biomedical science to the future human health.

Wishing you and your families a joyful holiday and new year,


Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics