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Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory celebrates opening of Watson School of Biological Sciences

WSBS class 1999
WSBS Class of 1999

Cold Spring Harbor, NY — On November 5, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) celebrated its 109-year history of science education at the inaugural convocation of the Watson School of Biological Sciences. At the ceremony, the CSHL Watson School awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science to three outstanding scientists—David Baltimore, Seymour Benzer, and Gerald Fink—in recognition of their long associations with educational activities at the Laboratory.

“I came to CSHL as a member of the first class of the Undergraduate Research Program while I was in college,” said honoree Baltimore, now president of the California Institute of Technology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “After that, I returned at least once every year for the next 20 years, either for a seminar, a symposium, or a course. In fact, I got my start in virology at the CSHL Animal Virus Course in 1961, and my start in immunology at the CSHL Symposium in 1976.” In 1975, Baltimore shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Howard Temin and Renato Dulbecco.

Fink has been deeply involved with science education at CSHL since 1970 when, encouraged by James Watson (who was then director of the Laboratory), Fink and Fred Sherman initiated the now-famous CSHL Yeast Genetics Course. “By lending its imprimatur to the study of yeast, CSHL established this organism as a paradigm for serious work in eukaryotic molecular biology,” says Fink, who taught the course every summer (save one) for its first 18 years and has lectured in it every year since then. Participation in the course has played a pivotal role in the professional development of many outstanding yeast molecular biologists. Today, Fink is director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and American Cancer Society Professor of Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1981.

Susan Hockfield Keynote Speaker Inaugural WSBS Convocation 1999
Keynote speaker Susan Hockfield at Inaugural WSBS Convocation 1999

The impact that educational activities at CSHL can have on the careers of scientists is further exemplified by Benzer, whose early interest in physics was overwhelmed by the introduction to the power of bacteriophage genetics he received while attending the CSHL Phage Course in the summer of 1948. Benzer subsequently changed fields and became a preeminent molecular biologist, working first in phage genetics and, since 1960, in nervous system development and behavioral genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila. Benzer is the James Griffin Boswell Professor of Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He received the Lasker Award in 1971 and the National Medal of Science in 1983.

With the opening of the Watson School of Biological Sciences, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory gains the ability to grant the Ph.D. degree under its own auspices for the first time since its founding in 1890. The curriculum of the CSHL Watson School is designed to guide the development of a small number of outstanding candidates into creative and independent scientists. Unlike traditional Ph.D. programs, in which candidates often spend five to seven years to obtain a degree, the curriculum of the CSHL Watson School is structured to grant the Ph.D. degree after four years of intensive study.

“The unparalleled faculty, facilities, and environment of the Lab have allowed us to create a unique doctoral degree program for students with a deep commitment to their graduate education,” says Winship Herr, Assistant Director of the Laboratory and Dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences. Herr’s leadership was instrumental to the establishment of the school.

The six graduate students in this year’s entering class of the CSHL Watson School were selected from an international pool of 130 applicants. The fact that these students were offered admission to other highly selective graduate programs underscores the quality of the new program at the CSHL Watson School of Biological Sciences. In addition, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded its prestigious Predoctoral Fellowship to two of the CSHL Watson School graduate students.

The school is named for James D. Watson, who was director of the Laboratory from 1968 to 1994 and has served as its president since then. Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his discovery, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, of the double-helical structure of DNA.

“The establishment of this first class of graduate students at CSHL continues a long tradition of excellence in scientific education,” says Director of the Laboratory Bruce Stillman. “From the summer Undergraduate Research Program, to the DNA Learning Center, to the many postdoctoral researchers, SUNY Stony Brook graduate students, and international visiting scientists educated here, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has established itself as one of the most diverse and unique science education facilities in the world. The Watson School of Biological Sciences has been crafted to meet or exceed this standard,” says Stillman.

Written by: Public Affairs | | 516-367-8455

About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Founded in 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has shaped contemporary biomedical research and education with programs in cancer, neuroscience, plant biology and quantitative biology. Home to eight Nobel Prize winners, the private, not-for-profit Laboratory employs 1,100 people including 600 scientists, students and technicians. The Meetings & Courses Program annually hosts more than 12,000 scientists. The Laboratory’s education arm also includes an academic publishing house, a graduate school and the DNA Learning Center with programs for middle and high school students and teachers. For more information, visit