Thoughts from the Dean

Reflections on Three Decades of Discovery

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September 27, 2012
Reflections on Three Decades of Discovery

Although much is made of the legendary rivalry between Harvard and Yale, much more of our relationship involves cooperation and collaboration.  In that context, I was extremely honored to be invited to deliver the 25th Lee E. Farr Lecture at Yale last May, at the culmination of the annual Student Research Day at the Yale School of Medicine.

I was asked to discuss my research career over the course of the last three decades and to offer advice from that perspective to graduating Yale students who are all required to conduct a scholarly project. Research was critical to my own experience as a medical student, and as HMS dean I have made it a priority for our students. I have taken steps to ensure that HMS students have every opportunity to enrich their medical school experience with scientific discovery. As of this year, it is now a requirement for every entering student to complete a scholarly project.

In the Farr Lecture, I discussed the trajectory of my own research career, and I hope that some of my experiences will help young scientists who are just now contemplating their future paths.

Some people know that my chief areas of investigation are obesity and diabetes and that I have been fortunate that my research has produced several insights into the molecular basis for diabetes and obesity.  What readers may not know, however, is that it was in a basic biochemistry course at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where I received my MD in 1972, that I first became interested in this area.

The chair of the biochemistry department at the time, Dr. P.G. Katsoyannis, led a group that was the first to synthesize the insulin molecule through peptide synthesis and then show it to be biologically active – a major feat at the time.  During my first few months at the school, my interest in insulin and metabolism was sparked. My personal hero at Mount Sinai, Chair of Medicine Dr. Solomon Berson, developed the technique of radioimmunoassay with his scientific partner Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, and my respect for Dr. Berson and excitement about the implications of his discovery powerfully influenced my subsequent scientific development.

Although Dr. Berson died prematurely during my senior year, Dr. Yalow went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1977 for their joint discovery.  In short order, I had the opportunity to know and work with the person who first synthesized insulin and the person who first measured its level in blood.  My career in endocrinology took flight, leading to a position at the National Institutes of Health with a student of Dr. Berson where a paper I published in the journal Science on a new form of diabetes established my own lifelong course of research.  That decision, in turn, drew me to what was then referred to as Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and to the faculty of Harvard Medical School.

Research also led me to one of the most rewarding and interesting collaborations of my life – with my wife Terry Maratos-Flier, a scientist with whom I have co-authored 29 papers on a variety of topics over the past 34 years. She continues to do critical work studying diabetes, an important disease in which many of the biggest questions remain unanswered. 

What are the lessons to be learned?  Research and funding sources are threatened today, but scientific discovery remains an incredibly fruitful and fulfilling career choice.  To understand why I believe this, and to find out which research discovery led to one of the great “aha” moments of my career, please take a look at the full text of my Farr Lecture.