Jan and Marica Vilcek have expressed an exhilarating vision with their unique prizes. That vision is the celebration of America, of its opportunity, its flexibility, its creativity. We are a country of immigrants. America was originally populated by natives who had a deep and historic culture. But the Western Europeans came and brought the world’s culture to this land. And it was the combination with land – endless, fertile land – producing wealth and sustenance, that gave America its uniqueness. Then came the cultures from Central Europe, and Asia, and Latin America, and America got richer, and more diverse.
My personal story is of two families, one from Lithuania, one from Odessa. Jewish, but beyond religion, they struggled here in New York. My father, an orphan, supported by his sisters so he could graduate from high school. Started a business and brought the family into the middle class. My mother, a brilliant student who went to Hunter High School and then, on scholarship, to NYU. Her academic career cut short by the depression but picked up again in the 1940’s. She got tenure at Sarah Lawrence College at age 62. Stories of privation and opportunity grasped.
For myself, I made a life with an immigrant from China, Alice Huang. She has a story of escape from a country that was coming under oppression and a story of finding opportunity in America. She wishes she could be here but had to be elsewhere.
Jan Vilcek’s story is legend but it underscores how far you can come in America if you have a good idea and lots of initiative. It reminds us that immigrants come here with a fire in their belly that many in the resident population have already banked. That fire can be explosive. And we have institutions that seek out that fire and provide an environment for it to be productive, not consuming.
I love America’s institutions. Particularly its universities and research institutes. It is why I have devoted so much of my energy to building and renewing institutions. What a combination! American institutions and the world’s population.
It is notable that our universities are the most stable segment of our society. Great companies come and go. We’ve watched the struggles of AT&T, General Motors and General Electric as they are challenged by the new economy dominated by Microsoft, Amazon and Apple. And even these new players are already being challenged to maintain their inventiveness. Creativity trumping stability, forcing change. But our universities adapt on their own. Harvard and Yale, as generative as in Colonial times. The venerable NYU that supported my mother and Jan Vilcek, finding new challenges, creating new talent. In fact, the urban schools like NYU, Boston University and USC are having a renaissance. In town after town in America, the universities and their medical centers are the biggest employers, the source of talent and wealth. But key is their willingness to educate anyone with promise and initiative, making them the crucible for containing and channeling the immigrant fire.
Nothing challenges creative people like science. With no immutable truths and no unspeakable heresies, science is the ultimate challenge. It seems to have the direction of progress but is really an ever-accreting pyramid whose base spawns novel spires that then spread themselves, forming ever more pyramids. Science is exhilarating but exhausting in its relentlessness as it seeks to encompass whatever mysteries remain dark and forbidding. It takes special people to populate science, fearless people whose intensity of focus overcomes all desire for relaxation. The sons and daughters of the elite and the comfortable are rarely willing to take the demanding path to science. They can dip their silver spoons deep and be rewarded well enough. It is those who lack means, who lack stability, whose cultures have been riled, who have arrived recently at the feast and want their share, who are willing to work endlessly– they are the ones who create the future.
Biological science has been in a state of creative turmoil as long as I have had the pleasure of being involved in it. I grew up during the last hurrah of the era of observation. I looked hard in my microscope and knew that there was a better way. And it was being invented around me, a molecular approach to biology was growing strong, fueled by the knowledge of DNA’s structure. I was just up the street at Rockefeller University when the dam broke for me and I was able to begin employing the new perspectives and new technologies to open up the secrets of the molecular world. Biochemicals, cells, viruses, genes—a heady and yeasty brew. Then recombinant DNA technology was invented and now everything was possible. The genes of a person were as accessible for study as the genes of virus had been before. Discovery flowed, enlightenment followed, cancer could be understood. We focused on how things were made, how genes were turned on, how cells grew. And we became content. Until Avram Hershko and Alex Varshavsky said you have forgotten a piece of the puzzle. Things need to be broken down—they get old, they get in the way of progress, they have completed their task, they need reinvention. And they opened a new avenue of knowledge. We celebrate Alex today and I will come back to him later.
But we are moving on. No longer is it enough to say look at the new gene I have discovered. The Genome project has found all the genes, as long you are insightful enough to see them. No longer is it enough to say, ‘look at this new pathway, look at this new control module, look at this new rearrangement’; the hubris of the young is bringing global knowledge, is integrating the pieces using mathematics and physics and engineering. Synthetic biology is the rage and will be so for centuries.
One area of remarkable new insights is evolutionary biology. In DNA we see written the history of the world, again as long as we are smart enough to read the record. And what a history it has been. Our first honoree this evening is Dr. Harmit Malik. Harmit looks at the evolutionary record written in DNA and he sees drama. To quote him, he sees an “intense battle for evolutionary dominance”. Who is at war? It is viruses, seeing animals as their fodder and their salvation. But the animals fight back. For every move of the virus, there is a counter move of the animal. And it is all written in the animal’s DNA. For some viruses, the animal’s genome itself is the home they seek and they have left their personal imprint on the DNA. Harmit has been reading and deciphering this record. His work is thrilling to read because of the drama he is uncovering. But it is not just bedtime stories; he is finding warriors we didn’t know we had working for us. He is discovering the tricks that viruses use to get under our defenses. His work is opening perspectives and integrating disparate knowledge. He is a true pioneer and worthy of the wonderful award that the Vilceks will bestow on him.
Harmit came to America from India with the express purpose of reinventing himself. He found the routes open and he took them, ending up in Seattle. From this perch, he surveys history, finding hard fought battles and documenting them. I see his work as transmuting science into drama; the creation of contemporary Westerns with the two sides trying to best each other using mutation rather than guns.
I have the pleasure and the honor of introducing my friend and colleague, Alex Varshavsky, who is receiving tonight the Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science. No one deserves this more than Alex.
First a little personal history: in 1975, just before I heard that I was to receive that year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine, I was in the Soviet Union as a guest of the Soviet Academy. It was an eye-opener; things were so depressing that any vestige of nostalgia I had inherited for Socialism was finally quashed. But there were some wonderful people, trying their best to be creative and effective in a situation of unrelenting oppression. One was Alex Varshavsky, a young molecular biologist working in Moscow. He had published some notable work and was a rising star. As I discovered from him later, he was also a frustrated young man because he knew how much more he could accomplish, given freedom and resources. Alex soon found his way to Finland, took the boat to Sweden, which required no passport, and applied for asylum, planning to come to America. I was able to help bring him quickly to the States where he started looking for a position. He gave seminars in a few places and it was no issue; anyone would have wanted him to join their institution.
I remember the seminar he gave at MIT, where I was then a faculty member. I left that seminar with Salvador Luria and Salva was enthralled by Alex’s talk and particularly by the rare intelligence that come through in his presentation. Salva said to me, “it reminds me of the young Max.” This was the highest compliment Salva could give; that Alex reminded him of Max Delbruck, who, with Salva, had fathered molecular biology. Max, a physicist by training, was known for his insight, his vision and his deep commitment to logic. Salva and Max had both come to America to release their creative energies. We, of course, hired Alex.
I worried that Alex might find it difficult to adjust to the American scientific system but I needn’t have been concerned. Alex told me that he dreamed in Moscow that one day he might be a professor at MIT and adapted to the position in no time. He proved as effective in the United States as he had been in Moscow and he was a jewel in the crown of MIT’s biology department, then possibly the best in the world.
Alex had been concerned mainly with how genes are controlled and was a guru of the chromatin field. But experimental science takes one in unexpected and often wonderful directions. Soon Alex had discovered that a strangely conserved but previously enigmatic peptide, called ubiquitin, was being attached to proteins and signaling their degradation. And he showed that this degradation had profound regulatory significance. He was inventing a new field, the field of protein turnover.
Alex embodies the spirit of the Vilcek award. He didn’t just come to America, he sought out America for the values that it represents. He sat in Moscow and dreamed of what our country could offer. He actively hated the world around him and wanted the opportunity of the New World.
Alex is not only a scientist of great accomplishment. He is more, much more. He is a true intellectual. He brought with him to America the style of the Russians we read about in Chekov or Dostoyevsky. No event occurs but Alex has a personal perspective for viewing it. He reads widely, thinks deeply and lives the life of the mind with an intensity rarely seen. He is certainly not through surprising the world.