January 2010

University of Oregon’s Institute of Molecular Biology Celebrates 50 Years

Gross pointed out that this project illustrates the value placed on maximizing every individual at the IMB. She described the long process Streisinger went through to find and develop a new model organism and said “He finally hit on zebrafish, and what stuck with me was the time he was given to really think through this transition. All the while, he had the support of everyone around him.”

Another major discovery that came from the institute was the first three-dimensional structure of a DNA-binding protein, published in 1982 by Matthews. Steve Kowalczykowski, now a professor at the University of California, Davis, was a postdoctoral fellow with Peter von Hippel. He still remembers the day he saw preliminary data for the Cro repressor structure: “One of Brian Matthews’ postdocs showed me how its spacing was perfect to fit into the major groove of the DNA. It was stunning.”

Von Hippel Reinvents the Institute

A Tribute to Peter von Hippel

Unveiled at the 50th anniversary celebration for the Institute of Molecular Biology, the Peter von Hippel graduate student endowment fund is “a tribute to von Hippel’s generosity and magnanimity, and his many and longstanding contributions to the university and the institute.” The endowment will support one graduate student a year, contributing to his or her stipend and tuition expenses beginning in 2010.

If you are interested in making a tax-deductible contribution to the endowment, contact Sarah Cheesman at sec@uoregon.edu or 541-346-0044.

In 1967, the institute hired von Hippel, who Bowerman called “the heart and soul of the institute.” Von Hippel, a pioneer in the biophysical analysis of DNA transcription and replication complexes, was institute director from 1969 to 1980. Gross did a postdoctoral fellowship with him and said, “[Novick] invented the institute, but Pete reinvented it, bringing a big-science energy and perspective, with more graduate students and bigger labs. He kept all the great things but brought the institute into the next phase.”

At the anniversary symposium, Bowerman announced the creation of the Peter von Hippel graduate student endowment, seeded with donations from faculty and alumni (see sidebar). In his spontaneous response, von Hippel praised the IMB for its ability to “evolve with the times and grow,” saying, “I’m impressed to look around and see people who have done extremely well, spread out all over the world and are having an impact.”

An Interdisciplinary Institute

A primary goal of the IMB is fostering collaboration between scientists with different expertise, and interaction is encouraged in many ways. Kowalczykowski recalls, “We didn’t really separate the social and the scientific. Everyone was so accessible. It was such an easygoing place, but that belied the scientific intensity.” He remembers having easy access to people like Streisinger, Sidney Bernhard, Stahl, Dahlquist, and the Schellmans. “When the institute was formed,” he says, “everyone was all on the same floor and complimented each other fantastically. Decades later, [institutes] were trying to implement programs that were already in place at the IMB. That was the genius of the founders, to fuse biology, chemistry and physics to solve long-standing problems. It’s a place that was way ahead of its time.”

The institute’s multidisciplinary approach inspired Rhett Kovall of the University of Cincinnati, who recalls the openness and community and said that playing on softball teams and interacting with other graduate students definitely influenced his career. Although he was solving protein structures in the Matthews lab, his roommate was studying Caenorhabditis elegans genetics in the Bowerman lab. Now the head of his own research group, Kovall says, “We don’t just solve structures, we do a lot of biology, and I think that goes all the way back to my graduate training.”

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