Summer 2017

The Visionary

Outgoing Sackler School Dean Naomi Rosenberg has left her mark on science—and the next generation.

By Courtney Hollands

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Photo: John Soares

During her last commencement address as dean of the Sackler School in May, Naomi Rosenberg told graduates: “You have more choices than I had when I was in your seat over 40 years ago.”

A few weeks later, sitting in her tidy office on the eighth floor of the Sackler Center, she elaborated. “I finished graduate school in 1973—there was no biotech industry then,” Rosenberg said. “Graduate school was about a career in academia, and that’s what I wanted.” But facing limited faculty positions and slashed research funding, today’s young scientists might head to jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, life-sciences consulting or patent law. And universities must continually evolve, she said, to prep students for wherever their careers take them.

Rosenberg has been doing that since the day she joined the Tufts University faculty in 1977. She was dedicated to advancing graduate education and fundamental science, first as a mentor for dozens in her thriving lab, then as the diversity-boosting dean of the Sackler School, the vice dean of research at the School of Medicine and as a leader on several national boards and task forces. Indeed, whether she was hosting a Ph.D. for a home-cooked meal or chairing the American Association of Medical College’s Graduate Research Education and Training group, Rosenberg always put students first.

“Naomi’s deep commitment to educating the next generation of scientists was a constant thread in her personal and professional life,” said Dr. Harris Berman, dean of the medical school. It’s a refrain you’ll hear often from those who know her best.

Rosenberg’s distinguished career began at the library. Raised by a cabinetmaker-father and a ceramicist-mother outside of rural North Westminster, Vermont, she remembers poring over scientist biographies and the classic book Microbe Hunters. She enrolled at Boston University in 1966—the first in her family to go to college—and graduated with a degree in microbiology. “I was
fascinated by the fact that these tiny organisms could cause such incredible disease,” Rosenberg said.

After earning her Ph.D. at the University of Vermont, she started postdoc training at Nobel laureate David Baltimore’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1975, Rosenberg figured out how to turn murine blood cells into leukemic cells in a Petri dish, pioneering the first tractable model for studying leukemia development in tissue culture. (Her work was important in the later invention of imatinib, a drug used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia.)

Dr. Robert Schwartz, then a professor at Tufts School of Medicine, recruited Rosenberg in 1977 for a cancer center he was establishing. While at Tufts, Rosenberg published more than 120 papers and the lab she ran through 2008 was continually funded by as many as three National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants per year. True to form, she’s quick to point to her students for that success. “A lot of the different pathways we took were determined by student research,” she said. “One person doesn’t have all the good ideas.”

Rosenberg wasn’t at Tufts long before she discovered how much she liked working with trainees. “It was so amazing to see how they changed and matured in their approaches to science,” she said. Over time, she mentored 29 Ph.Ds, including Lalita Ramakrishnan, SK90, now a professor at the University of Cambridge and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “I credit Naomi,” she said, “for turning me into a scientist.”

Rosenberg also worked in graduate admissions and as a student adviser, then became director of the Sackler School’s graduate genetics program. All this exposure to various areas of graduate education made Rosenberg a natural choice to take the Sackler School helm in 2004, associate dean Kathryn Lange said, adding that Rosenberg “does not ruffle very easily—and she’s really, really smart.”

Over 13 years as dean, Rosenberg encouraged the Sackler faculty to appoint chemistry, biology and biomedical engineering teaching staff from the Medford/Somerville campus, providing broader multidisciplinary training for students. She also supported faculty initiatives around diversity, including Building Diversity in Biomedical Sciences, a 10-week summer session, and the Post-Baccalaureate Research Program, which offers lab experience and mentorship for minority students who hope to go on to a Ph.D. The closer the school reflects our country’s population, “the better off we are and the more ideas we’ll have,” Rosenberg said.

Another way she is looking to the future is with the Naomi Rosenberg, Ph.D., and Morton B. Rosenberg, D.M.D., D74, Fellowship. She and her husband—a professor emeritus at the School of Dental Medicine and a professor at the School of Medicine—established the fellowship to promote discovery-based science. (The first recipient, Danish Saleh, M19, SK19, researched the body’s inflammatory response to infection or tissue injury in the lab of his doctoral adviser, Alexei Degterev. The fellowship covered Saleh’s stipend for a year, which freed up money for necessary research tools and led to the publication of their findings.) Rosenberg has also agreed to stay on as a senior adviser to the interim director of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.

Throughout her career, Rosenberg was involved in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the American Cancer Society, as well as with the American Association of Medical Colleges and the NIH. “Her reach goes far beyond her effect on the Sackler School students,” Berman said. “She carried the Tufts banner with her to Washington and made a name for herself—and for us.”

Closer to home, Rosenberg and her husband—who have been teaching at Tufts for almost 85 years combined—raised their daughter, Jessie, a 33-year-old attorney, and 31-year-old son, Ethan, who works in health-care marketing. “She has been an outstanding mother,” Mort said. In retirement, the couple plans to travel around Asia and spend plenty of time with family—especially their newborn grandson.

Rosenberg never felt like she was treated differently because of her gender, but colleagues and former students say she’s an inspiration for women in science. “Her students and others who weren’t even in her lab saw in her someone who could do it all,” Lange said.

Of course, it helped that Rosenberg was routinely at her desk (or lab bench) before 6:30 a.m. throughout her decades at Tufts. In recent years, she walked to work from her home in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood—well into her day as the rest of the city was just waking up.

In her office one afternoon, Rosenberg didn’t hesitate when asked what she’ll cherish most about her time as dean. “Oh, I’ll miss the students,” she said. “For sure.”


A few words about Naomi Rosenberg from former ph.D. students…


“Naomi did not talk about women in science; she just got on with being one and with training both men and women scientists. I appreciate this very much.”
—Lalita Ramakrishnan, SK90, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Cambridge.


“I felt, and continue to feel, equally free going to her for advice about a scientific question or a life question. She attended both my thesis defense and my wedding.”
—Caleb Lee, M08, SK08, associate medical director of global oncology R&D at Daiichi Sankyo, Inc.


“Naomi was a perfect mentor for me. She used the tough-love approach; in other words, she always expected the best, [giving] rather mild praise when it was achieved.”
—Alan N. Engelman, E81, EG85, SK90, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.


“Naomi is an incredibly thoughtful scientist. She taught me how to think, and I remember the joy of having an idea (and getting it out of my mouth) before she did.”
—Leslie Schiff, SK86, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and associate dean at the University of Minnesota.


Courtney Hollands, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at

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