Taking the Reins

Welcoming Rosalind Segal, new dean for graduate education 

Rosalind Segal seated at her desk in her TMEC building office.

Rosalind Segal in her HMS office. Image: J. Soares

In August, Rosalind Segal, Harvard Medical School professor of neurobiology and former co-chair of the Department of Cancer Biology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, began serving as HMS dean for graduate education. 

As dean for graduate education, Segal is responsible for the strategy, oversight and coordination of graduate education at HMS, including PhD and master’s programs that encompass scientific, computational and social science research pertaining to biomedicine.

These include nine PhD programs based at HMS, (six Division of Medical Sciences programs and three programs offered in collaboration with Harvard University departments in Cambridge), along with eight master’s programs, all under the graduate education umbrella. 

A native New Yorker, Segal earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry in 1979 at what was then Harvard-Radcliffe College, her doctorate in cell biology from The Rockefeller University and her MD from Cornell University Medical College. She completed medical and postdoctoral training at the former Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, the Harvard Longwood Neurology Program, Boston Children’s Hospital, MIT and Dana-Farber. She is an accomplished neurobiologist whose work has focused on developmental neurobiology and cancer biology.

Harvard Medicine News recently sat down with Segal to talk with her about her new role and some of the ideas she has for graduate education at HMS. 

HM News:  What particularly interested you about this role?

Segal:  I think it's a very exciting time for graduate education, both nationally and here at Harvard. There has really been a change in the purpose and goals of graduate education. Career possibilities for both the master’s and the PhD students have undergone a shift nationally. To meet current needs, PhD training has to be much more versatile than it has been in the past, while master’s degrees in a variety of areas are now needed in a way they weren’t before. This changing landscape presents a great opportunity for our programs at Harvard to become more collaborative and interactive.

HM News: The Program in Graduate Education has been growing here at HMS. How does your vision for Grad Ed seek to guide and nurture this growth? 

Segal: A more unified approach will be more efficient because there are many efforts that can be shared across programs. And it lets you ask what is important and what is not important. It allows us to think very deliberately about the growth of the programs.

HM News: What are some new directions you’re thinking of?

Segal: One master’s program that has already been approved is a collaboration between HMS, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. This new program will offer an MS/MBA to develop business leaders in biotechnology and pharma. In addition, we are also considering a new master's in human genomics and genetic counseling. As our understanding of the genetics that contributes to human disease grows, there is an increased need for genetic counselors trained to explain the information to patients. We've got a fabulous genetics department at HMS and great genomics expertise, and we are in a good position to host such a training program.

HM News: So part of your new role is to anticipate what will be needed in the future and build programs to meet those needs.

Segal: One of the great strengths at HMS is our scientific community, and so one of our goals is to make sure that all students are able to tap into this fantastic resource. To do so, it will be important to develop additional events and traditions that bring people together.

HM News: If you fast forward 5 to 10 years and look back at what you've done here, what do you want to have accomplished?

Segal: First, to have enabled a welcoming and inclusive community. Second, to have ensured that students receive outstanding training and support during their training. Third, that we have encouraged people to be creative. Feeling valued and supported allows students to be more creative.

HM News: Mentorship also seems to be key.

Segal: I completely agree, and this is a major priority. Our students have been asking for mentorship training for the faculty. In the past our faculty have not typically received formal training in mentorship. Like most of our faculty, when I started my lab, suddenly I was expected to manage a budget, train students and teach. All that in addition to seeing patients and running a lab. Many of these things I hadn't ever done before, and there were no courses or faculty specifically dedicated towards training in lab management and mentorship.  Recently Harvard tested a  pilot program for teaching mentorship skills that attracted more than  30 faculty leaders. I think this is really good and needs to be rolled out to more of the faculty. 

HM News: You are still running your lab, right?

Segal: I still have my lab. And that's good because it allows me to still feel what the faculty are feeling and all the constraints they're facing. And I'm still actively involved in the science.

HM News: Can you talk about that a little bit—your work and your path to becoming a scientist?

Segal: I have had a wandering path, which is why I see mentoring as so important. My work has been at the intersection of cancer biology and developmental neurobiology. And that has proved to be a very useful intersection, because so many of the molecular pathways involved in growing the brain during development are hijacked by cancers, particularly the cancers that occur in children.

For example, the sonic hedgehog gene, which is critical for growing the brain, turns out to be mutated in pediatric brain tumors, medulloblastomas in particular. I've been at that intersection, both thinking about what allows the normal regulation of development—which is pretty amazing if you think about how often it goes right and how complex it is—and then thinking about some of the disorders where things don't go right.

In addition to studying the tumors themselves, we also address the consequences of tumor treatment. There are so many consequences of the chemotherapies and the cancers that impinge on the nervous system. And that's been another area of research and clinical care where I've focused my attention.

HM News: Where did the name sonic hedgehog come from?

Segal: Sonic hedgehog? Oh, it's very simple. Hedgehog is a conserved molecule. Hedgehog was identified in Drosophila fruit flieswhere scientists were screening for patterning mutants and there was one mutant with lots of bristles throughout its body. And so it was called hedgehog.

HM News: Interesting! On a different note, you are originally from Manhattan. What did your parents do?

Segal: My dad was a doctor. My mother was a research psychologist. She was a professor at City University New York. 

HM News: So, was it kind of a given that you'd go into something science or medicine related?

Segal: I sometimes tell the story that after I tore up my mother's PhD diploma when I was three, I was told that the next PhD I tore up had to be my own.

HM News: Why did you tear it up?

Segal: Because why would you leave a three-year-old in the room with a big piece of paper? Now really! 

HM News: What are you most looking forward to in this job?

Segal: Working with the students. It’s amazing watching students overcome obstacles and get where they want to go.

HM News: You’ve been doing that for a while in your lab.

Segal: In my lab and in the department. A lot of what is needed is to pay attention to graduate education and think of it as a process. We used to think of it very much as an apprenticeship. And that's really not what it is now, partly because things are changing so rapidly and partly because there's so much more to learn than just one faculty advisor can provide. So yes, students have a critical mentor, but they have other people who are involved in training and teaching and encouraging them as well. 

HM News: Can you talk a little more about the rapid changes in science education?

Segal: There's so many different things that students want to do now, and they have different priorities. The body of knowledge has grown, the tasks one can do have expanded. There’s team science. How do you navigate team science? You know, the old idea was the scientist alone in the lab saying, “Eureka!” When you have papers that have a 100 authors on them, it's different—a different way of thinking, a different way of acting and a different way of doing science.

HM News: And you want students to come out of here prepared for that.

Segal: Yes. I don't want to train them for 19th- or 20th-century science. People should be trained for 21st-century science and all the ways in which science influences society. Science has to inform the way we think about the world: politics, health care, education. We are in this larger picture. The other thing to focus on is Veritas. Truth. Really knowing and believing that there are actual truths that we need to discover. That is critical for training in rigorous science.