June 2011

Gary Felsenfeld: untangling chromatin’s mysteries

Felsenfeld went on to attend Harvard University with the intent of becoming a physician and studied with John Edsall, the famous protein chemist and former Journal of Biological Chemistry editor. Edsall, who had gone to medical school but found it disappointing and instead became one of the earliest biophysical chemists, encouraged his scientifically inclined students to forgo medical training and get a doctorate instead.

Edsall's encouragement and a lackluster freshman biology course pushed Felsenfeld toward a more chemistry-oriented curriculum. In his last three years at Harvard, during weekly meetings, he and Edsall read and discussed influential scientific literature of the time including Pauling's "The Nature of the Chemical Bond" and Eyring, Walter and Kimball's "Quantum Chemistry."

"It made an enormous difference in my life," he says of those meetings, and the influence on his future career is evident.

During Felsenfeld's senior year, Linus Pauling gave a speech in which he said that anyone who chose chemistry as a career should take vows of poverty, an acknowledgement of the limited amount of funding and jobs for research scientists in those days. Interestingly, that only emboldened Felsenfeld. "I thought that forgoing monetary gain was wonderful, it was noble. And I committed myself to it."

Perhaps it was a bit of youthful naïveté on the part of a 20-year old student, but Felsenfeld, with Edsall's support, followed through and applied to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology to study physical chemistry. Edsall had told him that the future of biology was in chemistry, so Felsenfeld went to Caltech to learn theoretical chemistry and prepare himself for the new biology to come.

Out of respect for his parents, he also applied to Harvard Medical School, but did so having already made up his mind to get a doctorate degree. In an act that reveals his mischievous side, he sent Harvard a rejection letter to let them know of his decision.

During his second year at Caltech, Felsenfeld started working with Pauling, who had an interesting approach to helping students develop projects. "He'd leave notes in your mailbox with different ideas, and you'd find one that appealed to you." What appealed to Felsenfeld, and what would become the topic of his thesis, was the theory of ferromagnetism, although he readily admits, "I'm not sure I would understand it at this point!"

He completed his graduate work in three years and told Pauling he would like to move into biology. He wanted a position in Copenhagen with Kaj Linderstrøm-Lang, a prominent protein chemist, but Pauling said he needed more chemistry training and refused to write a recommendation. Instead, he wrote a recommendation for Felsenfeld to go to Oxford University to work with noted mathematician and theoretical chemist C.A. Coulson.

Although it sounds odd today, young scientists expected this level of guidance back then. "The idea that graduate students were people with rights had not yet really emerged," Felsenfeld says with a quiet laugh. All joking aside, he has no doubt about the wisdom of Pauling's decision.

"I was grateful. Pauling said 'I think this is what's right for you,' and I appreciated his guidance."

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