A 50th-anniversary gathering evokes the pleasures of pursuing science in the same department while caring for each other without fail
If you had been standing outside a certain bowling alley in Davis Square, Somerville, on the last day of June, you might have heard the muffled sounds of conversation and laughter coming from inside the place. Was this a wild family reunion of some kind? In a sense it was, as the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, known around campus for its warm, convivial atmosphere, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. The department was actually launched in 1962, but as Professor Abraham L. “Linc” Sonenshein says with a laugh, the reunion “took a while to organize.”
Nearly a hundred graduates of the department and its affiliated graduate program showed up from around the world, and together with current staff and faculty, accounted for between 150 and 170 people in attendance at the various gatherings over the two-day commemoration. Sunday was the fun, informal first day. Visitors had a barbecue lunch, watched some old videos documenting departmental life and toured the new labs in the Jaharis Center and Arnold before heading off to Davis Square that evening for rounds of pizza and bowling.
“People had a great time talking, moving from table to table and reconnecting with people they may not have seen in 50 years,” says Sonenshein. “This was special. Everyone was a little surprised by the warmth they felt, and discovering how important it was to connect with everyone else again.”
Fariba Houman, Ph.D.90, explains the pull based on her time as a student in the department. “It was fantastic to be there,” she says of her seven years in residence. “All the alumni will tell you this. I remember that it felt like one big family where the professors really took an interest in you and made sure you succeeded. In other graduate schools, your bosses might not even know who you are,” she adds, “but when I had my first baby, Andrew Wright [professor emeritus, her faculty advisor] was there.” Houman is now director of the Human Research Protections Program at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.
Moselio Schaechter, distinguished professor emeritus, was there at the start—as a cofounder of the department in 1962 with James T. “Ted” Park, and chair from 1970 to 1993—and helped create that special atmosphere. “Starting out from scratch, you could define the department the way you wanted,” he points out. “Early on, Park [the chair from 1962 to 1970] said every faculty member would have an equal say. Every decision was to be made by consensus, and that become the way we did business.” Faculty members would routinely circulate their grant proposals to each other, soliciting colleagues’ comments and suggestions for improvement. Students could detect the difference in tone as soon as they arrived, Schaechter remarks, adding, “They knew this was not a set of silos. Everybody cared about everybody else.”
Now 85 years old, retired and living in California, Schaechter has a longer perspective than anyone else concerning the emergence and growth of the department. “We have graduated more than 180 Ph.D.s, and most have done very well, wherever they are,” he says. “We seeded the country—we have done our job.” When pressed, Schaechter attributes the department’s half-century of scholarly achievement carried forward within an atmosphere of kindred spirits to “personalities and good luck.”
Part of the luck came from the fact that hardly anyone ever left the place, saving the department the cost of recruiting new faculty members—and also from the boom times in research funding that marked the early days. “In the 1960s, money was there for the asking,” says Schaechter. “That removed a huge burden. The NIH funding grew and grew and grew, at something like 15 percent a year, so you didn’t have that 700-pound gorilla on your back.”
Catherine Squires, professor emeritus and Schaechter’s successor department chair, attended the reunion and found special delight in the brief presentations by former students and postdoctoral fellows at the symposium that filled the schedule on Monday. “It was such a pleasure to hear the people who were in the department give talks and tell what they are doing now. It’s just hard not to be really proud,” she says.
Then she adds, in a wistful comment that seems to have permeated the whole event, going back to the merriment in Davis Square, “I miss the people of Tufts.”