MIT Reports to the President 1996-97


The Biology Department currently has 59 active faculty members of whom 13 are located in the Whitehead Institute, 12 are located in the Center for Cancer Research, 4 are joint appointees with the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, 1 is joint with Chemistry and 1 is joint with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Including active Emeriti faculty, 4 of the faculty are Nobel laureates, 25 are members of the National Academy of Sciences and 9 are investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The department has a very strong international reputation in research and teaching and has been a leading contributor to the development and application of molecular biology.


In the past year, the number of undergraduates registered as Biology majors was 435. We now have the second largest number of majors following electrical engineering. The Bachelor of Sciences in Biology degree was awarded to 156 students this past year: 137 in the regular Course VII Program, 19 in the VII-A Program.

A number of Biology majors received awards in 1996-97. Pardis Sabeti was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and Ramy Arnaout was named a Marshall Scholar. The Whitehead Undergraduate Prize, given to an undergraduate majoring in Biology, who shows outstanding promise for a career in biological research as demonstrated by academic scholarship and contributions to research and to the MIT community, was awarded to Avital Rodal. The recipients of the John L. Asinari Award were Rachel Fezzie and Mala Murthy in recognition of outstanding undergraduate research in the field of life sciences. Sophie Currier was the recipient of the Salvador E. Luria Prize honoring outstanding scholarship and research of publication quality. Sarah Tegen received the Ned Holt Prize for excellence in scholarship and service to the MIT community. The Laya W. Wiesner Award recognizing the undergraduate woman who has most enhanced community life went to Shonna Hsiang Yin. Yessica Cabrera received the Albert G. Hill Prize, awarded to minority juniors or seniors who have maintained high academic standards and have made continued contributions to improvement of the quality of life for minorities at MIT. Second place in the Boit Manuscript Prize for drama went to Dena E. Cohen and Karyn January Cheng took first place in the Robert A. Boit short-story category. Lily Koo received the Louis Kampf Prize in Women's and Gender Studies. Jenny Yung Liu received second place in the Writing and Humanistic Studies Prize for Scientific and Engineering Writing. The 1997 Randolph G. Wei UROP Award went to Avital Rodal for outstanding work at the interface of life sciences and engineering. The following biology majors were elected to Phi Beta Kappa: Joel Budman, Lina Chen, Karyn Cheng, Sophie Currier, Suma Dutta, Amit Etkin, Melina Fan, Yanwen Hu, Erin Janssen, Betty Nvien, Rebecca Perlow, Avital Rodal, Amy Schwartz, Leejee Suh, Mayukh Sukhatme, Daisuke Tsujimoto and Graham Warden.

A new advanced course for undergraduates was offered this past Spring: 7.27, Principles of Human Disease.

During the period from July 1, 1996 to June 30, 1997, 27 Ph.D. degrees were awarded in the Department; and 3 Ph.D. degrees were awarded in the Joint Program in Biological Oceanography with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). The maximum number of Ph.D. candidates registered in the Department in 1995-1996 was 196, with another 30 in the Joint Program. The entering class in 1996, including 1 in the Joint Program, was 24. The class arriving in September, 1997 will be 22 students, with an additional 8 students in the Joint Program.


The research activities of the department are in the areas of biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, cell and developmental biology, immunology, neurobiology, and virology. The FY97 total direct cost of research in the department (including the Center for Cancer Research and the Whitehead Institute) was approximately $59.2 million, $29.5 million of which was at the Whitehead Institute. MIT overhead on the funding in the department and the Cancer Center was approximately $8.5 million.

There were many research achievements over the last year, too numerous to all be mentioned here. There were, however, several significant advances in the areas of human health and disease. Professor David Page and collaborators uncovered a role in male fertility for the Y chromosome. These studies could increase our understanding of male fertility and could lead to new diagnostic techniques for infertile men. Professor Hermann Steller continues to explore cell suicide mystery. Using Drosophila, Professor Steller's laboratory has discovered a gene called Drosophila caspase-1 which is critical to causing programmed cell death similar to that in mammals. The identification of this caspase is an important step in understanding the mechanisms of cell suicide. A nine-person scientific team at the Center for Learning and Memory, headed by Professors Susumu Tonegawa and Matthew Wilson, reported in the December 27th issue of Cell on how the mouse brain forms spatial memories. The study involved a molecular, behavioral and electrical study of how animals develop spatial memory of a new environment after just a few minutes of exposure. The researchers developed a method to create mice in which the deletion of any gene of interest is restricted to a sub region or a specific cell type in the brain. This new genetic technique is likely to revolutionize the field of brain research. An international team of genome laboratories reported in the October 25th issue of Science on the mapping of a fifth of the human genome. The gene map establishes the location of more than 16,000 human genes. Professor Eric Lander, Director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, and others at the Center were participants in this consortium. An MIT group, led by Professor Lander, and Scandinavian researchers located a gene that may underlie many cases of Type 2 diabetes and may open the way for new treatments. Professor Peter Kim and his laboratory discovered a vulnerable region in the HIV envelope. In the April 18th issue of Cell, they reported on the crystal structure of a key fragment of the HIV envelope protein. This work on the protein fragment that enables HIV (the AIDS virus) to invade human cells has implications for new drug design. Professor Leonard Guarente is broadening his studies on aging to research in mice and is working on developing a visual marker for aging in transgenic mice.


Professor David Page was promoted to full Professor, effective July 1, 1997. Professor Tyler Jacks was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and Professor Tania Baker was promoted to Associate Professor (without tenure).

Four new faculty members, previously reported, assumed their positions this past year: Drs. David Bartel and Andrew Chess joined the Whitehead Institute and Department of Biology as Assistant Professors; Dr. Sylvia Sanders also joined the Department as an Assistant Professor, and Dr. Guosong Liu arrived to establish his laboratory.

We are pleased to report that Drs. Ilaria Rebay, Frank Gertler and Paul Garrity have accepted positions in the Department.

Dr. Rebay will join the Whitehead Institute and the Department as an Assistant Professor. She plans to continue her investigations of the role of cell-cell interactions in coordinating developmental decisions in multicellular organisms, using a multifaceted approach of molecular, cellular, biochemical and genetic techniques. Dr. Rebay received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is doing postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Frank Gertler will join the Department as an Assistant Professor during the next academic year. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is doing postdoctoral studies at the Fred Hutchinson Center for Cancer Research. He plans to use genetic cell biological and biochemical approaches to investigate the role of the gene Mena (Mammalian Enabled) and related proteins in the control of cell morphology and motility.

Dr. Paul Garrity will also join the Department as an Assistant Professor during the next year. He received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and is currently doing postdoctoral work at UCLA. He is studying molecular signaling events involved in target selection, using Drosophila as a model system.

Five faculty took advantage of the special MIT retirement incentive plan: Professors Gene Brown, Arnold Demain, Maurice Fox, Sheldon Penman and Phillips Robbins retired during the past academic year. They continue in the Department with part-time appointments as Professor without tenure and are active in the Department's educational and research programs. In addition, Professors Malcolm Gefter and Ethan Signer will retire on June 30, 1997 and will become Professors Emeritus.

It is a pleasure to report the following honors and awards to Biology faculty during the past year:

Andrew Chess received a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar Award.

Sallie Chisholm received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Arnold Demain was named a Corresponding Member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences; received an honorary doctorate from the University of Leon, Spain; and received the 1997 Marvin J. Johnson Award in Microbial and Biochemical Technology from the American Chemical Society.

Gerald Fink was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and was elected to fellowship in the American Academy of Microbiology.

Alan Grossman received the 1997 Eli Lily & Co. Research Award from the American Society of Microbiology.

H. Robert Horvitz received the Ciba-Drew Award for Biomedical Science.

Richard Hynes was a co-recipient of the 1997 Gairdner Foundation International Award.

Tyler Jacks received the 1997 American Association of Cancer Research Rhoads Award, and was named the first Daniel K. Ludwig Scholar at MIT.

Peter Kim was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Eric Lander was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and received the 1996 Dickson Prize in Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh.

Uttam RajBhandary was named the Lester Wolfe Professor in Molecular Biology.

Robert Rosenberg was named the Whitehead Professor.

Sylvia Sanders was named an assistant investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Phillip Sharp was appointed a Member of the National Cancer Advisory Board by President William Clinton

Anthony Sinskey was elected a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science.

Frank Solomon was elected Chair of the Education Committee of the American Society of Cell Biology.

Robert Weinberg received the 1997 National Medal of Science and was named the inaugural holder of the Daniel K. Ludwig Professorship for Cancer Research.


During the past year, the Department established new industrial relationships. In January 1997 MIT and Merck & Company established a Research Collaboration Agreement which funds joint initiatives in both MIT science and engineering. Merck supports faculty and students in science and bioengineering in developing technology and research with funding up to $15 million over an initial five year period, with an option to extend to 10 years. A corporate consortium consisting of Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Affymetrix Inc. and Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. was established to fund a research program in functional genomics at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, headed by Professor Eric Lander. The new program will advance the development of gene-based technologies for research and health care and will provide funding of approximately $8 million per year for five years. The MIT/Amgen Research Agreement, begun in 1994, provides for funding up to $3 million a year for joint research initiatives and the collaborations continue to prosper.

The Department of Biology Corporation Visiting Committee met on November 6-7, 1996. Professors Phillip Sharp and Robert Sauer reported on major topics and issues for the future; Richard Hynes and Gerald Fink reported on the Center for Cancer Research and the Whitehead Institute, respectively; Professor Frank Solomon gave an overview of the graduate program and Professor Graham Walker reported on the undergraduate program. In addition, the members of the Visiting Committee had opportunities to meet with the faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students. The Department welcomed two new Visiting Committee Members, Dr. Hillary Nelson and Mr. Barry Weinberg, to their first meeting.

This June the Department held its second week-long intensive Short Course in Molecular and Cellular Biology for faculty in the School of Engineering. The course was taught by eight of the Biology faculty and included hands-on laboratory exercises. The purpose was to acquaint engineering faculty with the current state of knowledge, approach and issues in modern biology.

More information about this department can be found on the World Wide Web at

Phillip A. Sharp

MIT Reports to the President 1996-97