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Vol. LXII, No. 22
October 29, 2010
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Research Festival Honors Spirit of Nobelist Nirenberg

On the front page...

It’s hard to believe that it was less than a year ago that NIH’s first intramural Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg (1968), was presiding with his customary warmth and enthusiasm over a symposium in honor of his groundbreaking discovery of the universal genetic code in the early 1960s at NIH. He died only 2 months after that November 2009 event, so it was appropriate that the 2010 version of NIH’s annual Research Festival was held in his memory Oct. 5-8.

“Marshall Nirenberg’s imprint on NIH research is immense,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins in remarks opening the festival on Oct. 5 in Masur Auditorium. “There is probably no one here whose work is not dependent in some way on his legacy...in many ways, he was really the soul of the [intramural research] program.”

Continued...

  NIH director Dr. Francis Collins opened the 24th NIH Research Festival, which honored the spirit and accomplishments of Dr. Marshall Nirenberg.  
  NIH director Dr. Francis Collins opened the 24th NIH Research Festival, which honored the spirit and accomplishments of Dr. Marshall Nirenberg.  

Collins recounted how Nirenberg began his work as the junior member of a small lab, but with ideas bold enough to attract the support of dozens of colleagues who set aside their own research to help him succeed.

“He trained a whole cohort of leaders in biomedical research,” said Collins, and established a tradition of collaboration and team effort that formed the basis of such modern initiatives as the Undiagnosed Diseases Program and the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases Program.

Many of those leaders, some of whom are themselves Nobel laureates, returned to campus at the end of Research Festival to honor Nirenberg. But between those powerful bookends lay the festival itself. “It’s like our version of Woodstock,” quipped Collins. “Three days of peace, love and science, minus the mud, I hope.”

A near-fathomless feast of intellectual inquiry, the festival included three symposia covering 21 topics, more than 120 lectures and three poster sessions featuring more than 600 posters. “From biochemistry to virology…we leave no cell or topic unturned,” said Collins.

He recounted the festival’s origins in 1986, when it was a 1-day celebration called NIH Intramural Research Day. “It began as a great idea that no one could say no to,” Collins noted. It was not celebrated in 1987 because of NIH’s centennial observance but has continued unabated since then.

“Research Festival has become critically important… especially to early and mid-career scientists,” Collins said. “With Marshall’s bold leap in mind, let’s sit back, enjoy the festival and think about what the next great leap might be.”

After the opening plenary session in Masur, the festival largely moved to Natcher Bldg. for the symposia and poster sessions. A large tent erected outside the cafeteria served as a food court during the festival. Another massive tent, located on lot 10-H behind the Clinical Center, housed the Technical Sales Association’s annual display of wares.

Nirenberg was remembered once again at the festival’s closing event on Oct. 8. That morning, nine scientists participated in a symposium on neurobiology, the field Nirenberg pursued for more than 40 years following his Nobel-winning work. In the afternoon, a memorial service in Nirenberg’s honor attracted a full house in Lipsett Amphitheater, including Nirenberg’s widow, Dr. Myrna Weissman, and other family members.

At the morning session, NHLBI’s Dr. Alessandra Rovescalli, who spent the past 20 years in Nirenberg’s lab, recounted her mentor’s many contributions since his decision, at a 1966 meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, to switch fields to neurobiology.

Janina Gregorski (at rear) and Dr. Li Jia inspect a National Eye Institute poster on Wednesday of Research Festival week at Natcher Bldg. Collins and Nirenberg’s widow Dr. Myrna Weissman stand before the new exhibit honoring NIH’s first intramural Nobelist.

Above, l: Janina Gregorski (at rear) and Dr. Li Jia inspect a National Eye Institute poster on Wednesday of Research Festival week at Natcher Bldg.

Above, r: Collins and Nirenberg’s widow Dr. Myrna Weissman stand before the new exhibit honoring NIH’s first intramural Nobelist.

Below: NCI’s Dr. Robert Kortum (r) explains his poster to Dr. Ira Berkower (l) of the FDA as John Pinski of NCI looks on.

 
NCI’s Dr. Robert Kortum (r) explains his poster to Dr. Ira Berkower (l) of the FDA as John Pinski of NCI looks on.  
Rovescalli said Nirenberg assembled a huge collection of neural cell lines and developed assays to characterize them, in addition to identifying genes crucial to the development of the nervous system. But, like most other speakers, she concluded with a tribute to Nirenberg’s humanity: “He was a very caring and very humble person who never failed to credit his colleagues.”

Dr. Lloyd Greene of Columbia University Medical Center, who was a postdoc in Nirenberg’s lab from 1971 to 1973, said, “Marshall was the quintessential lab person.” Three attributes made him successful, said Greene: “First, the idea of a reductionist approach to neuroscience, which is the same approach he used to solve the [genetic] code. Second, he created a great atmosphere in the lab, full of creative ideas and advice. Also, there was a constant stream of visitors, many of whom were quite distinguished. Third, his handling of young scientists was remarkable. He said the important thing is to find your own project and focus on it without distraction.”

Another former colleague, NHLBI’s Dr. Alan Peterkofsky, who said he interacted with Nirenberg for almost 50 years, including more than 30 years in the same lab, said Nirenberg was unusually generous and never asked for credit on papers that Peterkofsky wrote. “That’s a little different than the current style,” he said.

At the afternoon memorial service, which Collins called “a family celebration of the life of Marshall Nirenberg,” eight speakers paid tribute to their friend and colleague. Collins quoted Virgil: “Happy is he who has been able to learn the cause of things.”

Scientist emeritus Dr. Maxine Singer, who has been associated with NIH for 54 years, said her abiding memory is of a youthful Nirenberg, a man whose “modest and quiet demeanor masked a fierce competitive streak. We desperately wanted Marshall and the NIH to succeed [in the race against better-known scientists to crack the genetic code].” She also lamented that “the opportunities for young scientists back then are now beyond reach but not, I hope, beyond imagining.”

Nobel laureate (1985) Dr. Joseph Goldstein, who was at NIH from 1968 to 1970, could count five other future Nobel laureates besides himself as colleagues back then, along with a Shaw Prize winner, a former head of Merck Research Labs and the man who built Baylor Medical Center into a powerhouse (Dr. C. Thomas Caskey). “There must have been something in the water in Bldg. 10,” he joked.

Dr. Lloyd Greene of Columbia Dr. Alan Peterkofsky of NHLBI
Dr. Maxine Singer Dr. Joseph Goldstein Norma Z. Heaton

Speaking at the morning symposium on Nirenberg’s career in neurobiology were (top, from l) Dr. Lloyd Greene of Columbia and Dr. Alan Peterkofsky of NHLBI. Those who remembered Nirenberg at an afternoon memorial service included (bottom, from l) Dr. Maxine Singer, Dr. Joseph Goldstein and Norma Z. Heaton.

“The thrill of discovery was in the air,” he said of that era. “We worked hard and we had a lot of fun.”

Norma Zabriskie Heaton, who spent more than 40 years as Nirenberg’s lab tech, said her boss loved “quickies,” fast little experiments that yielded useful answers. Nirenberg would prowl the lab leaving no detail overlooked, asking “How goes it?” and inevitably answering a colleague’s reply with a quiet, “Terrific!”

“He always liked to end the week with a successful experiment,” she said.

Weissman said that the National Library of Medicine will receive a large portion of her husband’s papers, including the genetic code as it was originally reported.

“Next to his family, Marshall loved NIH with a deep passion,” she said. “He turned down many lucrative offers over the years to remain at NIH. He didn’t want to give up his scientific leadership for a position of oversight.”

Following the memorial, Collins and NHLBI acting director Dr. Susan Shurin unveiled a new exhibit honoring Nirenberg, the third at NIH since 1992, in a hallway outside Lipsett.

“Generations will pass through this hallway and they will stop and marvel at the equipment, which now seems so antiquated,” said Collins. “It’s not about the equipment though, but the creativity and determination to do something important. We hope visitors will be inspired when they see it. It’s a wonderful gift to have. Those who see it will be encouraged about what NIH can do.” NIHRecord Icon


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