Pit Stops #37, 38 & 39: Gerstner Sloan Kettering, Rockefeller University & Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

In December, I had the pleasure of visiting three New York institutions unlike any others I have experienced in my years in higher education: Rockefeller University, Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory School of Biological Sciences. They have all been accredited by the New York State Board of Regents for years, but when NYSBOR decided to get out of the business of accreditation this past summer, each chose to seek accreditation from NECHE. (In the summer of 2020, federal regulations changed and institutions of higher education can now be accredited by agencies outside their geographic region.) These three are among at least six universities outside New England that will be before NECHE in 2022. That’s pretty darn exciting in my book–and what an amazing three to lead the way! 

The actual Nobel Prize!

Each is a graduate-only, degree-granting institution recognized as among the top biomedical research organizations in the world. (A case in point: the scientists of Rockefeller University have been awarded 26 Nobel prizes.) What struck me particularly about this trio is their close working relationships with each other, and their deep focus on both science and the scientist. I’ll also add that my hosts in all three places could not have been more welcoming, gracious, and open. 

While these three institutions share a reputation as cutting-edge researchers in biological science, each is unique in location, size and specialization.  Gerstner Sloan Kettering is an urban institution located on the Upper East Side of New York City. The school is embedded in a beautiful high-rise building containing multiple floors of laboratories adjacent to its partner, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. Rockefeller University is literally around the corner from GSK, but has a very different vibe. It is situated between York Avenue and the East River and feels like a true campus, an oasis of sorts in the middle of the city. And finally, Cold Spring Harbor is blessed with 100 acres right on the water, about an hour’s train ride from Penn Station on Long Island –about as idyllic and non-urban a setting as one can imagine.

The size of the institutes distinguishes them from each other as well. The entering annual cohort of Ph.D. students at Cold Spring numbers about ten; while GSK’s cohort was 18 this past year; and Rockefeller’s more on the order of 25-30. Yes, they are all quite small in the scheme of things, but the difference between ten and thirty students in a cohort multiplies when one understands that each cohort remains at the school for about five years. Thus, the total student count at Cold Harbor is around fifty, compared to over 200 at Rockefeller. One final significant difference is that GSK’s students concentrate their research on cancer, while Rockefeller and Cold Spring candidates have a broader research agenda in the biological sciences.

Now a few more specifics about each. 

Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, or GSK as it is known, is affiliated with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the oldest and largest private cancer center in the world, with a Ph.D. Program in Cancer Biology and Masters of Science Program in Clinical and Translational Cancer Research. Its mission is clearly stated: 

“Much of the recent explosion in new knowledge about normal biological functions and disease is rooted in laboratory discoveries…We are only at the beginning of this journey. To be able to fully harness new scientific knowledge and translate it from the lab into clinical practice, we need to train the next generation of scientists who are passionate about tackling problems in human disease through biomedical research.” 

Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers have led the way in developing new ways to diagnose and treat cancer. They maintain one of the world’s most dynamic programs of cancer research, with more than 130 research laboratories that are focused on better understanding every iteration of the disease. Between 1980 and 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for marketing ten drugs developed in GSK labs — a success rate unmatched by any other cancer center. Research at the Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI) — Memorial Sloan Kettering’s basic research arm — is dedicated to understanding the biology of cancer through nine major research programs. Investigators at SKI collaborate with Memorial Hospital physician-scientists — a partnership that helps speed important research findings from the laboratory to the patient.

Memorial Sloan Kettering also conducts one of the largest clinical research programs in the world, where physicians and scientists in disease-focused research teams translate basic science findings into new treatment advances. In addition, Memorial Sloan Kettering actively initiates and participates in clinical trials to identify more effective cancer therapies. In 2020, its physicians were participating in more than 1,100 clinical research protocols for pediatric and adult cancers.

I spent a good bit of time with Dean Michael Overholtzer, a leader in the fields of cell death and autophagy, and I zoom/met with the Chair of the Board of GSK, Louis Gerstner, Jr.,  the former CEO of IBM and RJR Nabisco. I can’t say that I grasped a whole lot of the science they discussed (these biomedical fields are incredibly complex), but conversations with Overholtzer and Gerstner about the educational mission and organization of the school were more down-to-earth, and thankfully, I was able to follow along in those.

On to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). CSHL has been home to eight scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is ranked among the leading research institutions in molecular biology and genetics, with Thomson Reuters ranking it #1 in the world. CSHL was also ranked #1 in research output worldwide by Nature magazineLike GSK, it is one of 68 institutions supported by the Cancer Centers Program of the United States National Cancer Institute (NCI) and has been an NCI-designated Cancer Center since 1987.

Alexander Gann is in his 10th year as Dean of CSHL and led his team through our visit. One of the highlights of our visit was an hour spent with five faculty: Camila dos Santos, Leemor Joshua-Tor, Stephen Shea, Adrian Krainer, and Arkarup Banerjee (who was also a student at Cold Spring less than a decade ago). It was clear from our time together that despite working in separate fields, these scientists/faculty members knew each other well — and equally impressive, they knew their students well. Each faculty member runs a laboratory where the Ph.D. students do their research. After the first year, which consists of classwork for the fall semester and rotations among the various labs during the second semester, the students pick the lab where they will spend their next four years. Candidates are funded for those four years by the school, not the individual lab, and will have their thesis proposals and research reviewed every six months by a faculty committee.

We were curious where these brilliant student-scientists end up after they leave Cold Spring, and their destinations turn out to be quite varied. About 40%  enter the ranks of faculty at places like Johns Hopkins, Yale, the University of Chicago or Michigan; a smaller number move to leading pharma companies or genomic centers; and the remainder stays in non-research or academic research fields. Needless to say, wherever these graduates end up, they continue their amazing, high-impact, and innovative work.

Barbara McClintock at work.

Among the best-known researchers affiliated with CSHL is Barbara McClintock, who arrived on campus in 1941. McClintock stayed at Cold Spring Harbor until her retirement in 1967 – and even beyond, as a scientist emerita, until her death at the age of 90. McClintock examined corn’s hereditary characteristics, such as the different colors of its kernels. She studied how these characteristics are passed down through generations and linked this to changes in the plant’s chromosomes. During the 1940s and 1950s, Barbara McClintock proved that genetic elements can sometimes change position on a chromosome, causing nearby genes to become active or inactive. McClintock received the Nobel Prize more than 30 years after making the discoveries for which she was honored– and to this day she is the only woman to win an unshared Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Finally, one of the unique features of Cold Spring (and this trait goes back to its founding over 100 years ago) is the plethora of programs and courses which annually draw more than 10,000 scientists to Cold Spring from spring to fall. Clearly, CSHL has earned its reputation as the world’s center of biology education.

And then there’s Rockefeller University. I’ve walked by the gates of Rockefeller on the Upper East Side many times, gazed in, and wondered what happens on this 14-acre campus. Well, now I know.  Dean Sidney Strickland led our visit to this extraordinary institution that has produced the aforementioned 26 Nobel Laureates. Its students represent 43 countries, and the university has the highest percentage of frequently-cited science publications amongst 1200 universities worldwide. But more than that, Rockefeller has a fascinating history and mission. 

John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

The origins of the university reside, in part, in personal tragedy. After John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s grandson died from scarlet fever in January 1901, the capitalist and philanthropist formalized plans to establish a research center to combat infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and typhoid fever that were then considered the greatest threats to human health. New research centers in Europe, including the Koch and Pasteur Institutes, had been successfully applying laboratory science to increase understanding of the scourge of diseases, and following their lead, The Rockefeller Institute became the first biomedical research center in the United States.

From the beginning, Rockefeller researchers made important inroads in combatting disease: Simon Flexner, the first director of the institute, developed a novel delivery system for an anti-meningitis serum; Hideyo Noguchi studied the syphilis microbe and searched for the cause of yellow fever; Louise Pearce developed a drug to use against African sleeping sickness; and Peyton Rous deduced that cancer can be caused by a virus.

In 1913, Oswald T. Avery came to The Rockefeller Institute Hospital to study the differences in virulence among strains of pneumococcus, a bacterium that causes severe pneumonia. Dr. Avery’s research led to the development of the first vaccine for pneumococcal pneumonia, but in 1944, it also led him and his colleagues Colin M. MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty to make an unexpected discovery: that DNA is the substance that transmits hereditary information– a finding that would set the course for biological research for the rest of the century.

In the 1940s and 50s, other Rockefeller researchers modernized the science of cell biology using the newly developed electron microscope, which provided magnification hundreds of thousands of times that of traditional light microscopes, and allowed them to become the first humans to see inside cells. Their research proved that the fluid inside cells, once considered an undifferentiated chemical soup, contains unique structures that carry out distinct functions that cells need to live. Together, these scientists ushered in the new science of cell biology.

In 1955, The Rockefeller Institute expanded its research mission to include education, admitted its first class of graduate students, and in 1959, granted its first doctoral degrees. In 1965, The Rockefeller Institute became The Rockefeller University, further broadening its research mandate. In the early 1960s, new faculty with expertise in physics and mathematics came to Rockefeller and in 1972, the university began a collaboration with Cornell University to offer graduate students an M.D.-Ph.D. program. Later, the Sloan-Kettering Institute became a partner in what is now known as the Tri-Institutional Program. Since that first Convocation ceremony in 1959, when five doctorates were conferred, the university has granted more than 1,000 Ph.D. degrees to students who have gone on to influential positions in academia, industry, and other fields. 

So, that’s the trifecta — an extraordinary set of institutions prepared to become NECHE members within the year! And of course, I will share more news about our other new members soon. 

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