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Vol. LXIII, No. 16
August 5, 2011

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NIGMS Retires a ‘Fund of Knowledge’
By Emily Carlson

Dr. Judith H. Greenberg

Dr. Bert Shapiro

Photo: Emily Carlson

Did you know that a Maryland license plate can have no more than seven characters? This is one of many facts you might have learned from Dr. Bert Shapiro, an NIGMS program director for 35 years.

Around the institute, Shapiro was the go-to guy for anything you needed to know. Whether you wanted a list of sites to see while traveling in Italy or trivia about a Nobel Prize winner, Shapiro had the answer. And by the end of your conversation, you usually got more than you bargained for.

“I’ve never met anyone with a memory like his. He knows so many facts and has so many stories to tell,” said Dr. Cathy Lewis, director of the NIGMS Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics, where Shapiro was a branch chief.

Shapiro’s vast knowledge base and approachability are part of his legacy within NIGMS and the scientific community he helped nurture. He retired from NIH on July 1.

“Bert recalls NIGMS history, people, procedures and events, and he applies and shares this knowledge when addressing any current issues,” said then-NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg. “We will miss his wisdom and perspective.”

One of the efforts Shapiro says he is most proud of is leading the NIGMS Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which supports students pursuing a combined M.D.-Ph.D. During the 17 years he directed the program, he saw hundreds of students graduate from it. And many more contacted him for career advice.

“It was a rare day I didn’t get a call from someone thinking about going into the program,” he said. “I was the friendly voice on the other end.”

But Shapiro also spent a lot of time talking to the faculty who managed MSTPs at institutions across the country. By knowing what each site was doing, he could learn about and share best practices with everyone, ensuring that the program’s quality continued to rise.

“He made use of his extraordinary memory and fund of knowledge to bring out the best in the program and academic sites,” said Dr. Nancy Andrews, an MSTP graduate, a former MSTP site director and now dean of Duke University Medical School. “A generation of physician-scientists owes its perspective and capabilities to Bert’s dedication and vision.”

Because of this leadership, Shapiro thought he’d put “MSTP KING” on his license plate. But, as he soon found out, that was too long. Knowing a bit of Latin, he came up with “MSTP REX.”

Shapiro, who started college at age 16, earned his doctorate from Harvard University, where he taught biology and conducted research prior to joining NIGMS in 1976.

Interested in both the sciences and arts, Shapiro realized his curiosity was too broad to focus on a narrow area of research, namely the study of certain proteins that help nerve-signaling ions flow across cell membranes. Being a program director in cell biology, he says, let him not only stay abreast of scientific advances but also allowed him to help shape their direction.

“I’ve watched and encouraged careers, especially those of new investigators,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to be in their cheering section.”

One example is Dr. Rod MacKinnon, a Rockefeller University researcher who received the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his NIGMS-supported research. He said, “Bert has overseen all of my NIH grants and has offered invaluable advice, especially at the earliest stages when I was just trying to figure out how to make it as a scientist…He has made a difference.”

For someone who enjoys discovering and sharing new facts, science has offered Shapiro the perfect career: Research advances, by definition, bring forth new information.

While he’ll miss his daily interactions with colleagues and scientists, Shapiro said he won’t miss the commute. Shortly before his retirement, he and his wife moved to Annapolis, where Shapiro now plans to spend his days fishing and swimming. He also will subscribe to the New York Times so he can challenge himself with the daily crosswords—an addictive hobby he once reserved for plane rides. His overall goal, he says, is to “learn as much as I forget!”

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