by LESLIE CHURCH
At this year’s Convocation ceremony, honorary degrees were awarded to four proponents of basic science who have made invaluable contributions to science, through research and philanthropy. Günter Blobel, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor at Rockefeller; Paul Greengard, Vincent Astor Professor at Rockefeller; and James and Marilyn Simons, leaders in the philanthropic community, each accepted degrees.
Dr. Blobel, who started his career at Rockefeller as a postdoc in 1967, is considered a major figure in cell biology. He received the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on protein transport, which revealed the existence of a cellular “zip code” system that provides newly made protein molecules with highly specific addresses, guiding them to the part of the cell to which they are assigned. Dr. Blobel answered a crucial question of cell biology that had loomed over the field for decades, and in turn he expanded scientific understanding of several inherited diseases.
Dr. Blobel is originally from Waltersdorf, Germany, now a part of Poland, and attended the University of Tübingen, receiving his M.D. in 1960. He earned his Ph.D. in 1967 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When Dr. Blobel was a child, his family fled the advancing Red Army of the Second World War, and found themselves near Dresden, a cultural center that was soon after fire-bombed by the allied forces. The event made a significant mark in the scientist’s memory, and decades later he became the founding president of Friends of Dresden, an organization that has played a major role in reconstructing and restoring historic buildings in the city. He donated his entire Nobel monetary winnings toward the reconstruction of a landmark church and the construction of a new synagogue. At the ceremony, Dr. Blobel had a few words of wisdom for the graduating class.
“Keep a child’s curiosity,” he said. “Learn through teaching. If your grandmother doesn’t understand what you are doing, you probably don’t understand either. Invite criticisms, and accept opposition to your ideas, but trust your instincts and stay the course.”
Dr. Greengard is also respected as a pioneer in his field — that of neurobiology. In the 1960s, when most neuroscientists were concentrating almost exclusively on the role of electrical impulses in the brain, Dr. Greengard chose to focus on the brain’s chemistry instead. He was honored for his transformative work in 2000, when he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of how dopamine and a number of other neurotransmitters exert their action in the nervous system, work that has led to new insights in treatments for Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Dr. Greengard earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, where he helped establish a new department of biophysics with Detlev Bronk, who would later become president of Rockefeller. His academic career took him from the University of London to Cambridge University, the University of Amsterdam, the National Institutes of Health and Yale University. Dr. Greengard joined the faculty at Rockefeller in 1983, and since 1994, he has also headed the university’s Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. Together with his wife, the sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, Dr. Greengard donated his Nobel winnings to establish the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize. Named in honor of his mother, who died giving birth to him, the annual international award recognizes the accomplishments of women in science.
Marilyn and James Simons were honored for their dedication to encouraging high-risk, high-reward research.
“What sets Jim and Marilyn apart from many benefactors is their deeply held belief in the importance of basic research,” Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Rockefeller’s president, said at the ceremony. “They understand that basic science requires patience, but that in the long run — and sometimes in the short term — it pays huge dividends. Theirs has been ‘institution building’ philanthropy, and all of us in this great hall today have benefitted from their vision and largess.”
James Simons began his career in academia. He earned his Ph.D. in math from the University of California, Berkeley, at age 23. He subsequently taught math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard before becoming a cryptanalyst for a U.S. Department of Defense think tank at Princeton University, breaking military codes during the Vietnam War. He then made his way to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he served as chair of the mathematics department, building it into one of the world’s top centers for geometry and earning accolades for his own work in differential geometry. In the late 1970s, Dr. Simons left academia for finance, starting Renaissance Technologies, which pioneered the use of quantitative analysis to make investment decisions and quickly became one of the top performing investment firms in the world.
Dr. Simons’s commitment to math and science education can be seen through his many philanthropic roles — in addition to being a Rockefeller trustee, he created the Math for America program, whose mission is to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in U.S. public schools. He is chairman of the Simons Foundation, the charitable organization that his wife leads, and serves on the boards of many other prestigious institutions, including the Institute for Advanced Study, MIT and Brookhaven National Laboratory. At the ceremony, Dr. Simons discussed his appreciation for the role of mathematics in biology.
“[I’ve been] gratified to see that mathematics has found its way into many aspects of life science,” Dr. Simons said. “The sophistication of the mathematics being applied to biology has increased. But even if … mathematics is never a full partner in life science as it is in physical science, it will surely come to be its indispensable loyal servant. It behooves all of you setting out on this quest to arm yourselves for the journey by learning as much mathematics as you possibly can.”
Marilyn Simons is noted for her role as president of the Simons Foundation and is considered to be one of the leading advocates in the United States for research on autism. The Simons Foundation, created in 1994, is a major funder of basic scientific research, in areas including mathematics, physics, life sciences and autism. Through the foundation’s encouragement, many of the world’s prominent geneticists, biologists and clinicians have chosen to include the search for the cause of autism in their research. Simons Science News, a division of the foundation, aims to enhance public knowledge of science and math by providing editorially-independent, lay-friendly research news online. Dr. Simons, who earned her Ph.D. in economics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is also active with several programs dedicated to educating children, particularly those with special needs. She is a past president of the board of the LearningSpring School, a private New York City school for children on the autism spectrum, and at Rockefeller, she is an active member of the Women & Science initiative.
“Politicians and special interest groups influence many decisions critical to our country. We need the voice of scientists,” Dr. Simons said to the graduates. “Many of you will use your education and imagination to excel in research. I’d like to suggest that you also use your talent to share your discoveries and your passion with others. … Your sense of wonder and vision give us hope for a better world tomorrow, and sharing that is the most compelling message of all.”