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This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on September 18, 2020 at 11:53 a.m.
Subject: Update from the President

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Dear colleagues,

I hope you are enjoying the beautiful September weather in New York and that you get a chance to spend some time outdoors this weekend.

On the COVID-19 front, the infection rate in NY state and NY city has remained very low, with 0.9% of all tests being positive this week. For perspective, only Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts are lower, while the US average is 5% and a dozen states have more than 10% positive tests. At Rockefeller, among 740 tests done on campus among our community members in the last two weeks by Bob Darnell’s lab, there have been zero positive tests. There are currently 37 people on the watch list, including 28 who have returned from travel to locations on the NYS quarantine list due to high rates of transmission. Of the remainder, four are contacts of known or highly suspected cases and five have non-specific symptoms. None are highly suspected of having COVID-19.

Throughout the pandemic, there have been no cases of viral transmission on campus, evidence that our community has done an outstanding job following safety protocols on and off campus, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and washing hands frequently. I want to particularly thank members of the custodial team for their tireless efforts in sanitizing all the surfaces we touch daily on campus such as doors, sinks, and elevators. I urge everyone to remain vigilant as we head toward fall. Please remember to report all travel to OHS using the online travel questionnaire, and to fill out the daily RU Healthy self-assessment checklist every day before coming to campus. And as always, do not come to campus if you are ill. Your diligence is essential to maintaining a safe environment.

I’m pleased to report that this year’s incoming class of graduate students has now arrived on campus, and the fall courses have begun for all students. Classes are taking place both in person and remotely, and students have selected labs for their first rotations. Please join me in welcoming these new students to campus!

In the CFC, school has now been expanded to our full complement of 108 infants, toddlers, and preschool children. All children and staff are being tested weekly using saliva samples, and there have been no positive tests in these groups thus far. Congratulations and thanks to all the teachers and staff of the CFC for your great work and dedication.

For families with children in grades K-8, there are particular challenges regarding teaching, supervision, and work when these children’s classes are remote. Ginny Huffman has been in contact with parents of these children to discuss these issues and is actively exploring ways that Rockefeller might be able to help. I’d like to thank the newly formed Parents in Science Association for their helpful suggestions and productive discussions.

While our research labs have been open for several months, it has been under constrained conditions, with much reduced density and scientists working on shifts. Many have noted that they are missing the regular and chance interactions in the lab and group discussions that make science at Rockefeller so vibrant. Given the absence of on-campus transmission of the virus throughout the lab reopening, the Research Restart Committee (RRC) has begun evaluating ways we might modify our protocols to allow more people to be in labs at the same time. This issue obviously directly impacts our core mission, and we will do all we can to advance the conduct of science on campus while maintaining safety. Watch this space.

While on the topic of science, Christian Zierhut and Hiro Funabiki have published a fascinating follow up to their earlier study on the molecule cGAS, which is involved in detecting DNA in the cytoplasm of cells – a sign of invading pathogens – and triggering inflammatory and immune responses. When cells divide, the nuclear envelope breaks down, exposing chromosomes to the cytoplasm, which raises the question of why cGAS doesn’t then set off the alarm bells. In a paper just published inScience in collaboration with a group from the University of Tokyo, they showed that cGAS specifically binds nucleosomes – chromosomal DNA wrapped around a ball of histone proteins – very tightly in a configuration that prevents binding to naked DNA. This provides an elegant mechanism by which cells can proceed through normal cell division without triggering activation of cGAS. This fundamental discovery has interesting implications for the pathogenesis of autoimmunity.

Also on the science front, I was proud to present Elaine Fuchs with her Gairdner International Award medal in a ceremony on the Rockefeller campus this week in recognition of her incredible research on stem cells. This was in lieu of the normal award ceremony in Canada, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congratulations to Elaine!

Finally, a reminder that we are now 46 days away from the presidential election, and deadlines to register and/or request a mail-in ballot are fast approaching. Rockefeller has established Election Day as a University holiday to help make it easier to vote and participate in our democracy. I strongly encourage everyone who’s eligible to vote and be sure well in advance that you know when, where, and how you will vote.

With best wishes,

Rick

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