The Debrief: Alexander Gann, Watson School of Biological Sciences

Dean Alexander Gann: Innovative courses, and CSHL's incredibly rich learning environment, help students graduate two years ahead of their peers elsewhere.

In terms of size, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s graduate school is a bit short of Ivy League. With seven new Fall 2015 admissions bumping the student body to 41, the Watson School of Biological Sciences has a ways to go to catch the likes of MIT’s 11,000 students or Harvard’s 6,700. But when your namesake is credited with cracking DNA, your work had better be A-grade, and the Watson School’s focus on biological sciences is second to none. Setting the tone since January 2013 has been Alexander Gann, a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh with a penchant for the pen, a world-class understanding of enzymatic reactions and a keen eye on the regional economy. In his words:

MAN OF WORDS: After receiving my Ph.D., I did research on gene regulation at Harvard and newt limb regeneration at University College London. But I was always drawn more to writing and education than doing experiments. This preference led me to the position of assistant biology editor at the science journal Nature, and then to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where I developed a range of lab manuals, monographs and textbooks.

MANY TRACKS, ONE FOCUS: All students get their Ph.D. in biological sciences. We don’t have separate tracks for the different areas of research at the lab – neurobiology, cancer, quantitative biology, etc. A strength of the program is that all students have to learn about these areas.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT: The laboratory is a private, not-for-profit institution and we are grateful to private donors and foundations for supporting the WSBS and its students. Our students also compete very successfully for their own individual fellowships from a variety of external sources, including NIH and NSF. This reflects the quality of the students and the program in general.

A DEGREE APART: Unlike other graduate schools, our students take all their courses in the first term, and during that time do no lab work. Only after that do they spend time in three different labs before deciding which they want to join. They then take their qualifying exam after having been here for only about 10 months; in most programs this doesn’t happen until the end of their second year.

INTEGRATION THEORY: CSHL has always combined education and research in an unusually integrated manner. As with all graduate schools, our students train in the laboratories of the institution’s research faculty, though less typically the school funds the students, relieving the faculty of that financial burden. The students also benefit from exposure to the 9,000 scientists from around the world who come to the lab for the legendary scientific conferences and advanced technology courses. The students also get to teach the middle and high school children who participate in DNA Learning Center genetics programs every year. We are completely integrated into the laboratory’s broader education and research activities.

QUICK THINKING: The average time to graduation is almost two years quicker than the national average, one measure of the school’s success. Others include the number and quality of the scientific papers [students] have published and the awards they have won for their thesis research. For example, four have won Weintraub Awards, prestigious national prizes given to graduate students whose work is judged the best in the country in their graduating year.

PROFESSIONAL GRADE: Perhaps the most important measure is the success graduates have had in their subsequent careers. Most have stayed in academic research. One remarkable fact is that of those who graduated six or more years ago, over half have tenure-track faculty positions at top institutions around the country – an extraordinary number in this day and age. Other graduates have pursued equally successful careers in biotech, scientific publishing and consultancy.

ECONOMIC ENCOURAGEMENT: Among those who have followed careers in non-academic areas is one student who started a company here, Envisagenics. While at WSBS, students run local programs to get children interested in science, like the Girls Who Code Club. And as I mentioned, all the students spend some of their time teaching middle and high school students at the Lab’s DNA Learning Center.

BIG YEAR, QUANTITATIVELY: This year’s graduation was our 15th and coincided with the lab’s 125th anniversary. It included the largest number of graduates in the school’s history (12). An educational highlight was the launch of a new advanced course in quantitative biology, an area that is more and more important to students, whatever field of research they choose to focus on.

Interview by Gregory Zeller