skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXI, No. 5
March 6, 2009

previous story

next story


NEIís Piatigorsky Retires to Scientist Emeritus
Dr. Joram Piatigorsky

Dr. Joram Piatigorsky, chief of NEI’s Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology (LMDB) and head of its molecular genetics section, recently retired and is now scientist emeritus. He has been chief of LMDB since 1981. During his more than four-decade career at NIH, he published more than 275 papers in peer-reviewed journals, received numerous awards for his scientific achievements and delivered many national and international invited lectures.

Piatigorsky received a Ph.D. in developmental biology and chemistry in 1962 from California Institute of Technology. He was introduced to vision research during his postdoctoral studies of the lens and its crystallin proteins at NIH under Dr. Alfred J. Coulombre. At NIH, he has taught developmental biology and served as chairman of the department of biology and genetics, Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (1974-1987). He has also been a teacher, mentor and thesis advisor for a dozen graduate students and more than 60 postdoctoral fellows.

He says that one of his greatest achievements has been running a lab in which people have been inspired to learn and pursue research. “They keep coming back,” he says of his former fellows. “We have formed a community that has a similar pattern of thought and independence.”

Piatigorsky describes his research as being “curiosity-driven,” and says it is nearly impossible to follow a linear path in the laboratory. He was led from his early studies of crystallin proteins in the eye to comparative studies of crystallins in vertebrates and invertebrates ranging from chickens to jellyfish, to studies of the molecular basis for crystallin gene expression.

In 1988, he and his colleagues coined the term “gene sharing” to describe the multiple protein functions that can be expressed by one gene. His team also generated the “refraction hypothesis,” extending gene sharing to the cornea and conceptually linking the lens and the cornea by way of the multiple functions of corneal crystallins.

Piatigorsky has received many awards during his career, including the 2008 Helen Keller Prize for his outstanding scientific contributions that have opened the door to a new era of molecular and genetic vision research.

What’s next? “I see myself as half-scientist, half-artist,” he says. “I just don’t think like a normal scientist. I’m much more of a qualitative person than a quantitative person.”

His lifelong love of literature took a step forward 15 years ago when he began writing short stories. At first, he was so busy as a scientist that he decided to write only what he could finish in a single sitting so he wouldn’t get overwhelmed.

In the following years, however, he has kept writing and has even completed a novella. “I really love literature and writing because it’s totally creative, but it’s a different form of creation than science,” he says. “With science, you try to be creative within the rules of nature, but in literature, you’re allowed to create the rules.”

CIT’s Graham Ends Long Federal Career
Dr. Dale Graham feeds the llamas on her farm
Dr. Dale Graham feeds the llamas on her farm near Culpeper, Va., a 70-mile commute from Bethesda.

There was one less car on the road on Jan. 5—did you notice? Dr. Dale Graham was not rising from slumber at the typical 3 a.m. wake-up time, not driving the 70 miles (one-way) to her office in Bethesda and not logging in on the NIH Network. Graham retired from the Center for Information Technology after serving 28 years with the federal government. Although she will miss the work and the people, the commute was another story.

Many at NIH know that she was one of the first on campus to use a Mac. Others are aware of her work establishing the NIH Intramural Database (NIDB), a tool that provides data on intramural research and investigators. Still others knew her as a llama farmer living in Virginia with pastures of gentle, intelligent animals. Graham is well known in the community after working in three institutes and having an instrumental role in the NIH-wide NIDB. Her efforts have touched many.

In 1980, Graham was recruited to NIH as a cancer expert by NCI’s Dr. Gilbert Smith. NIH had no cell phones or PCs, relying instead on fax machines and intercoms. “It was a dream come true to work for NIH,” Graham remembers.

After 3 years at NCI, she transferred to NIDDK as a special expert and biologist. With a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Graham had developed a passion for mainframes in graduate school and even brought her “teletype” machine with her to NIH.

In 1990, she was recruited by then DCRT’s Dr. Brian McLaughlin to supply both Mac and scientific support. “Both careers are amazingly similar; they each involve spending hours and days trying to figure out a better way to do something,” she explains.

In 1997, Graham joined CIT’s Division of Enterprise and Custom Applications to begin one of the most challenging projects of her career.

“Dale arrived in our office to discuss setting up what became the NIDB and was confronted by a list about 3 pages long of everything we wanted in it. She didn’t blanch, but in her own inimitable way rolled up her sleeves and got to work,” said Dr. Joan Schwartz of the Office of Intramural Research, the current “owner” of the NIDB. The NIDB project began as a better method to manage aspects of the intramural program but it became a successful approach at increasing communication at NIH.

“It wasn’t until I was about to leave NCI that I started to know who was doing what and who I would need to go to for answers to certain questions,” Graham recalls. Since 1998, when NIDB was first released, Graham has been at the helm as program manager. “It’s hard to figure out who is doing what across NIH, and this database does all the work for you.” While only five institutes participated at first, currently the NIDB collects, stores and reports data from all ICs in the Intramural Research Program while also integrating with the Research, Condition and Disease Categorization (RCDC) Project. Scientific reporting is now linked inextricably with the NIDB.

“[Graham is] the ultimate in responsiveness, the embodiment of the NIDB and someone we will miss very much,” Schwartz said. Don’t worry about the NIDB continuing on, though. The new program manager, Kyung Torrence, has some big shoes to fill, but plans on not only continuing the legacy but also making enhancements.

Graham leaves NIH with some advice for her colleagues: “Continue to encourage the positive culture that works with people’s strengths and weaknesses. Tolerate the weaknesses and build upon the strengths.” NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page