MIT Reports to the President 1998-99


The Biology Department currently has 58 active faculty members, 14 of whom are located in the Whitehead Institute, 13 are located in the Center for Cancer Research, 3 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. Two of the faculty also have key appointments in the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health. Including active Emeriti faculty, 3 of the faculty are Nobel laureates, 24 are members of the National Academy of Sciences and 10 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 and cellular biology.


In the past year, 420 undergraduates registered as Biology majors, the third largest number of majors following electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. The Bachelor of Sciences in Biology degree was awarded to 144 students this past year: 130 in the regular Course VII Program and 14 in the VII-A Program.

A number of Biology majors received awards in 1998—99. Several biology students received writing prizes: second place for the Robert Boit Writing Prize in the essay category went to Jennifer Zhou; Orli Bahcall received first place in the Dewitt Wallace Prize competition for Science Writing for the Public; Perkin Shiu received third place in the Robert A. Boit prize competition for poetry; Alokanaanda Ghosh received one of the main prizes in the Austin Kelly III prize awarded for humanistic essay and Andrea Zengion received a second place prize in the Kelly competition; Margaret Latoche received the Anne L. Parke Writing Award. The 1999 Randall Wei UROP Award went to Michael Altman. 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 Jason Kreisberg. The recipients of the John L. Asinari Award were Michael Altman and Margaret Latocha in recognition of outstanding undergraduate research in the field of life sciences. Alok Saldanha was the recipient of the Salvador E. Luria Prize honoring outstanding scholarship and research of publication quality. Maitreya Dunham received the Ned Holt Prize for excellence in scholarship and service to the MIT community. Orli Bahcall receive a Marshall Scholarship, awarded to students who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement and a capacity to make a significant contribution to society. The following biology majors were elected to Phi Beta Kappa: Michael Altman, Orli Bahcall, Qi Cui, Vikas Gupta, Irene Kim, Margaret Latocha, Liyun Li, Benjamin Moeller, Marianne Moon, Seema Nagpal, Sunbin Song, Natalie Tal, Banny Wong, Jane Woo, and Naveen Yalamanchi.

During the period from July 1, 1998 to June 30, 1999, 26 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 1998-1999 was 192, with another 35 in the Joint Program. The entering class in 1998, including 8 in the Joint Program, was 43. The class arriving in September, 1999 will be 43 students, with an additional 4 students in the Joint Program. One new graduate seminar course, on "Genetics of Development and Behavior in Zebrafish" was added, taught by Professor Nancy Hopkins. Laboratory rotations were introduced into the first year graduate curriculum and were extremely successful.


The research activities of the department are in the areas of biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, cell and developmental biology, immunology, neurobiology, and virology. 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. The Guarente lab advanced their research into the mechanisms of human aging by determining the location of WRN, the protein defective in Werner syndrome, a disease which causes symptoms of premature aging. The WRN protein is located in the nucleolus and the single cell organism, yeast, ages rapidly due to a defective nueleolus. This suggests that a defective nucleolus may be related to the symptoms of Werner's individuals and some aspects of the normal aging process for humans. The Jaenisch lab established that DNA methylation, a chemical process by which cells alter how genes are read without changing the basic text, may also be responsible for maintaining the integrity of the genome. Their findings suggest that early cancer cells may use reduced DNA methylation to decrease genome stability and increase the mutation rate, both of which are crucial for the development of malignant disease. Hazel Sive, in collaboration with scientists at the Genetics Institute, identified a new gene called derrier that plays a key role in the development of the frog embryo by controlling the formation of the posterior regions of the embryo. In addition, because this gene appears to play a role in inducing precursor tissues that will eventually form muscle, these studies should be useful to complement the efforts by other scientists to regenerate muscle in wasting diseases. Alexander Rich reported that Z-DNA is an important part of cells' repertoire for making proteins that all organisms need.


Professors Alan Grossman and Terry Orr-Weaver became co-chairs of the Graduate Committee, effective July 1, 1998, as Professor Frank Solomon stepped down after 10 years of service.

Professor Chris Kaiser was named co-chair of the Undergraduate Committee, effective July 1, 1999. He will serve with Professor Graham Walker, who has been Chair of the Undergraduate Committee since 1985.

Professor Alan Grossman was promoted to full Professor, effective July 1, 1999. Professors Tania Baker and Hazel Sive were promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and Professors Jianzhu Chen, Jacqueline Lees and Peter Sorger were promoted to Associate Professor (without tenure).

One new faculty member, Angelika Amon, arrived during the past year to assume a position as an Assistant Professor and set up her laboratory in the Center for Cancer Research.

We are pleased to report that Professors Troy Littleton and Martha Constantine-Paton have accepted faculty positions in the Department.

Professor Littleton will join the Center for Learning and Memory and the Department as an Assistant Professor. He plans to continue his investigations on the formation and function of synapsis using Drosophila as a model system. Professor Littleton received both a Ph.D. and M.D. from Baylor College of Medicine and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin.

Professor Constantine-Paton will join the Department as a full Professor. She will move her laboratory from Yale University and will continue her analyses of the cellular and molecular mechanisms for activity-dependent neural development.

Professor Phillips Robbins retired this June after almost 40 years of service in the Department.

It is a pleasure to report the following honors and awards to Biology faculty during the past year. Angelika Amon was named the Howard S. and Linda B. Stern Career Development Assistant Professor and received a Presidential Early Career Award. Tania Baker was the recipient of the 1999 Harold E. Edgerton Award from MIT. Arnold Demain received honorary membership in the Croatian Society of Biotechnology, the G. J. Mendel Honorary Medal for Merit in the Biological Sciences from the Czech Academy, honorary membership in the Czechoslovak Society for Microbiology, Doctor Honoris Causa from Ghent University, and an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Alan Grossman was elected to Fellowship by the American Academy of Microbiology. Leonard Guarente was elected to Fellowship by the American Academy of Microbiology. Nancy Hopkins was named the Amgen Professor. H. Robert Horvitz was named a Whitehead Professor; he also received the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize (Frankfurt, Germany) and the 1999 Gairdner Foundation International Award. Richard Hynes was named President-Elect of the American Society for Cell Biology, and has been named a Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research. Chris Kaiser was named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow. Peter Kim was elected a Fellow of the Biophysical Society and a Member of the Korean Academy of Science and Technology; he was also the recipient of the 1999 Hans Neurath Award from the Protein Society. Eric Lander was elected to the Institute of Medicine and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded a Golden Plate Award by the American Academy of Achievement. Harvey Lodish was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Sheldon Penman received the E.B. Wilson Award from the American Society for Cell Biology, Robert Rosenberg was awarded an Honorary Ph.D. Degree from the University of Amsterdam. Robert Sauer was named the Salvador E. Luria Professor. Phillip Sharp was named an Institute Professor at MIT, received an Honorary Doctor of Medicine from Uppsala University, as well as an honorary degreefrom Thomas Moore College, Crest View Hills, Kentucky, and was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society. Susumu Tonegawa was named to a Whitehead Professorship. Robert A. Weinberg received the Killian Faculty Achievement Award for 1999 and the Elizabeth A. Wood Science Writing Award from the American Crystallographic Association.

The Department received several major financial awards during the past year. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded MIT a four year grant for support of undergraduate education in the biological sciences. David Koch, a 1962 graduate of MIT, pledged $25 million, over 10 years, to support cancer research in the Department. The Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Chair Fund at MIT began sponsoring UROP projects in cancer research. The Amgen and Merck relationships remain strong. In 1998—99 8 faculty received Amgen funding for research projects. The Merck collaboration supported 15 graduate fellowships, 9 postdoctoral fellowships and 11 faculty received research support. The Whitehead Institute received a $1.2M grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to establish and equip a new facility for biological imaging and will receive approximately $35 million from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health to participate in the first year of the definitive, full-scale effort to sequence the human genome.

The Department of Biology Corporation Visiting Committee met on November 3—4, 1998. The Department welcomed new member Jann Primus to her first meeting. The Center for Cancer Research celebrated its 25th anniversary on June 18, 1999 with a day long symposium on "Molecular Cell Biology of Cancer" featuring talks by alumni of the Center.

This is my last President's Report. Effective July 1, 1999, I am stepping down as Department Head; it's been a rewarding and fulfilling eight years as Head. Professor Robert T. Sauer has been named Head of the Department. Professors Tania Baker, Tyler Jacks and Peter Kim have been named Associate Department Heads.

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

Phillip A. Sharp

MIT Reports to the President 1998-99