Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes.

Part XVIII: Robert Bruce Merrifield, 1984 Prize in Chemistry

By Joseph Luna

By the time Bruce Merrifield sat down to write in his lab notebook in May 1959, a scientific puzzle had been twirling in his head for quite some time. What he wrote next summarized a Nobel-worthy problem and offered a bold but totally unproven solution, all in three sentences. It turned out to be an impeccably succinct opening salvo, not just for a research career, but for an entire field.

“There is a need for a rapid, quantitative, automatic method for the synthesis of long chain peptides. A possible approach may be the use of chromatographic columns where the peptide is attached to the polymeric packing and added to by an activated amino acid, followed by removal of the protecting group and with repetition of the process until the desired peptide is built up. Finally the peptide must be removed from the supporting medium.”

To unpack this a bit: Merrifield spotted the need to take amino acid building blocks and string them together to form a peptide of his choosing (or if a really long peptide, a whole protein). His idea in essence was to use a solid support to get an amino acid to hold still, so that he could methodically link amino acids together sequentially. Finally, the immobilized chain of amino acids, the peptide, could be released and studied.

At a time when molecular biology was just getting off the ground, Merrifield’s understated first sentence belies a history of protein chemistry already more than half a century old, as well as his own frustration at making the small peptides he was interested in studying. After joining Wayne Wooley’s research group as a post-doc at Rockefeller in 1949, Merrifield applied his biochemistry training by isolating and characterizing “strepogenins” a catch-all term for small peptides that stimulated bacterial growth. The standard practice was to isolate these peptides from a biological source, but this approach almost always generated scholarly (aka vicious) pushback: it was very difficult to rule out contamination. If a compound could be crystalized as a means of isolating it to “purity”, most biochemist naysayers would generally be assuaged.

Chemists, however, were an entirely different breed of naysayer. They would only be convinced by chemical synthesis of a pure compound, characterized at each intermediate step as a measure of quality, and where, by definition, no biological contaminant could be introduced since no life form (other than the chemist’s hands) was required. For this reason, most biochemists weren’t really considered chemists: they merely isolated and characterized what they thought were active compounds, but they could very well be fooling themselves. Justus von Leibig’s famous chemical dictum “Tierchemie ist Schmierchemie” (Biochemistry is sloppy chemistry) stung hard for the better part of a century.

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Searching the Nobel Prize

By Susan Russo

There is a wealth of enjoyment in exploring Nobel Prize information online. There are videos, such as a documentary of the four 2012 Laureates’ discoveries in medical research; Mother Teresa’s and Elie Wiesel’s speeches after their awards of their Peace Prizes; and a 1994 interview with John Nash (prize in Economic Sciences), including his views of the movie A Beautiful Mind, based on his life and work. Another category, “Nobel Laureate Facts”, delivers statistics on the number of total prizes throughout the years, the number of women’s prizes “so far”, ages of the awardees, and the reasons that two awardees, Jean-Paul Sartre and Le Duc Tho, declined their prizes. Other current special features appear about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Malala Yousafzai, and Rabindranath Tagore. There is even a section called “Educational Games”, which includes “Save the Dog” about diabetes, “Bloodtyping”, “A Drooling Game” about conditioned learning, and “All about Laser.” In another link, the Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute describes the process of nominations for the Peace Prize.

My favorite section, however, is listening to the Nobel podcasts, short interviews giving us the viewpoints of the awardees in their own words.  A recent interviewee was Rockefeller’s own Roderick MacKinnon. There are two separate interviews with May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, 2013’s dual awardees in Medicine. May-Britt Moser talks about “pure joy” for herself, and “inequality in science”, while her husband Edvard speaks of the value of “partnership” and recalls “childhood memories.” Mario Molina, awardee in Chemistry in 1995, discusses “climate change” and the role of “human activity” and says, “The risks are unacceptable.”  In 2006, Roger Kornberg (Chemistry) admits that most of his “ideas are wrong.” John Mather, a NASA scientist (Physics, 2006) thinks that if there is water on Mars, there is likely to be life in some form. Elizabeth Blackburn (2009 Physiology or Medicine), whose discoveries show how telomeres transform in aging, says, “We just know so much and yet we know so little.” We hear from Randy Schekman, whose award in 2013 was in Physiology or Medicine, arguing for open access in scientific publications.  And George Smoot (Physics, 2015) lauds the fact that “science today is a truly global enterprise.”  Some Nobel Prize winners admit that they were surprised by their awards. One, John O’Keefe (2013, Physiology or Medicine), prefers being in the lab, saying, “I’m a bench scientist.” And Alice Munro, who won the prize in Literature in 2013, describes her reaction as, “Bewildering but very pleasant.” In all the podcasts I’ve heard, the awardees reflect an excitement in their work, and most display a spirited optimism for the future. All in all, “meeting” these people online is thought-provoking and inspirational, at least to this listener.

Culture Corner

Six Perfect Songs

By Bernie Langs

I enjoy listening to music of all genres and styles and truly appreciate the efforts of not only good composition and musicianship, but of superlative production in the recording studio. On a visceral, emotional, tactile and maybe even soulful level, I have many favorite tunes that I deem perfect. These are songs I’ve never tired of hearing after years of listening to them. I would include such pop songs as diverse as Midnight Confessions by The Grass Roots that was a hit in 1968, Billie Jean, the Michael Jackson mega-hit with stellar production by Quincy Jones, and the live version by The Cream of I’m So Glad, which boasts a ripping solo by Eric Clapton, which I consider the best in all of live rock recordings. I could make the case for many songs as “perfect”, but I’ve chosen the following six to make remarks on:

SIx: Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, has spoken of his obsessiveness in getting imaginative production sounds for his instrument in the studio, but even more importantly of the band’s consistent search for great “riffs.” And the clever, engaging riffing history of this monster band began with the very first notes of their first big hit, Whole Lotta Love and culminated with the ascending guitar notes that makes a later song Kashmir a spiritually inviting mystical journey. Whole Lotta Love has front man Robert Plant singing at full throttle impassioned best. The abstract middle-break instrumental, with fading in and out head-play sounds, was unprecedented at the time. Drummer John Bonham has a great rollout of that interlude, which is followed by the piercing wail of Page’s axe, which in turn segues back to the original riff. Brilliant!

Five: Heroes by David Bowie. Bowie fans will forever be intrigued by his Berlin period, when he retreated in the 1970s to that Cold War city to change artistic direction and wax philosophical. The album Heroes has a fabulous unity of thought and it’s a disturbing one in which Bowie ruminates about the state of human emotion and its quasi-surreal future. The album production by Brian Eno, with assistance from Tony Visconti, is a perfect fit for Bowie’s dark mood. Never before had synthesizers been utilized so fabulously in the rock music genre, melding perfectly with the structure of Bowie’s dense and revelatory songs. The album’s title song, “Heroes,” isn’t just a Cold War simultaneous desperate lament and solitary moment-in-time celebration. It boasts technical musicianship unmatched by any of Bowie’s and Eno’s contemporaries. Decades after most rock music is forgotten, they’ll still be studying David Bowie.

Four: Adagietto of the 5th Symphony by Gustav Mahler. This movement of Mahler’s 5th is simply the most beautiful theme in music history. Theorist Theodor Adorno called passages of Mahler’s symphonies “songs” so Mahler’s passage here fits neatly in this list crowded with rock songs. I first heard the Adagietto at the IBM Gallery of Art, where it was played in an auditorium during the Gallery’s exhibition on the ancient, volcanically obliterated city of Pompeii. Images of the destroyed city and its artifacts were displayed in a slide show in the darkened theater to the sounds of Mahler’s emotionally-charged song. Adorno’s point that Mahler never completely repeats entire themes as practiced by his predecessors, holds true in this case. The passage’s sad strings often do mournfully restart, but Mahler tweaks the presentation as if developing the yearning thoughts. The crescendo is forceful, and, unlike many of Mahler’s themes, resolves beautifully. One finds oneself longing for—what is it? Love? An unattainable soul mate? Understanding? For a better world? It’s all there in this perfect “song.”

Four: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man, Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones. Yes, I know that’s three songs. Released in quick succession from 1968 to 1969, only Street Fighting Man was imbedded on an album (Beggar’s Banquet). All three have what’s missing in much of today’s pop and rock music: ingenious melodies, unique guitar riffs (by Keith Richards), entertaining lyrics, and roughshod emotion all tarted up in within tight production. Mick Jagger sings his living guts out, Charlie Watts drives the pounding beat home, and bassist Bill Wyman patiently picks his moments to emerge from the mix to take us all on a ride. The lyrics range from catchy and clever to novelistic in the case of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which tells the improbable tale of an unlikely protagonist “born in a crossfire hurricane” climaxing with his drowning, where he is “washed up and left for dead.” Top shelf Stones.

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New York State of the Mind

by Guadalupe Astorga

This month Natural Selections interviews Raquel Hernandez-Solis Research Assistant, Gilbert Laboratory

How long have you been living in the New York area? 


Photo Courtesy of Raquel Hernandez-Solis

Two years, and I also lived here for three months during the Rockefeller SURF program (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship).

Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

I live in my favorite neighborhood which is Astoria, Queens; it’s a wonderful place. It has the New York vibes and also a bit of L.A., which I love.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

I was going to say the most overrated thing is Shake Shack, but now I know it has also expanded to L.A.

I think Williamsburg is also overrated; it has lost a bit of the charm, even 3 years ago.
Underrated, I think Astoria Park, it has a beautiful view over the bridge and you can run on the track, there’s always someone selling fruit in carts.

What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

I miss the feeling of being able to do anything very quickly. I miss being only a 15 minute train ride from my dance class or my favorite restaurant. I love the convenience of the city.

Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us “New Yorkers”?

I have gotten a bit more cautious because I had some break-in incidents, but I have not lost my sense of exploration. When I first got here I used to get off the train in a random station to explore the neighborhood, and I have not lost that, but I do feel that I have gotten a bit more cautious.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

I would change smoking laws in the streets, that’s my least favorite thing in the city. I feel that the cigarette smoke that I smell on my way to work is too much.  

What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

In the summer I really like looking at the free dance and cultural activities in my Time Out magazine. Last summer I saw the ballet Hispanico for free at Lincoln Center and also different concert venues outside.

 What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?  

My most memorable experience was to be able to perform in the Barclays Center, last summer, and feel like Beyoncé for a night, walking on the floor of the center and seeing thousands and thousands of people, it was the really cool.

Bike, MTA or walk it???

I love the MTA, and I’m starting to expand my horizons with the bus system. I think it’s very convenient because it takes you where the subway cannot.

If you could live anywhere else, where [would] might that be? 

I would like to live in Mexico for a little bit, not only to reconnect with my family down there; but I would also love the opportunity to do folklorico dance there for an extended period of time.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

I think so. My heart has changed from Los Angelino to New Yorker. I’m 75% New Yorker now.


For Your Consideration

By Jim Keller

As we begin our fifth year of uncovering and examining the content that will eventually form the enigma that is the Academy Awards race, I thought it would be interesting to switch things up and break down my films of interest list by release date, festival appearance and production status. After all, outside of the pedigree attached to each film, these are the only available parameters to measure the Oscarability of each film, sight unseen. The early part of the Oscar race (from January until the Telluride Film Festival in August) is a moving target. The awards stops along the way, such as the Sundance, South by Southwest, and Cannes film festivals, can be equated to the change of seasons: their arrival is inevitable, but their impact is uncertain. This makes spit balling what may come down the slippery slope of the Oscar pike a dicey proposition. For one, a lot of the films lack distribution or have soft release dates, making it easy for studios to push their release to the following year. Second, the films discussed here haven’t been screened, so it’s impossible to know the genre they fit into. All we have to go on is the log line, the talent attached, and a little intuition. In this sense, one could say this parallels how we size up politicians, but I digress.

Last year, FYC’s Crystal Ball Edition covered only two out of eight 2016 Best Picture nominees. With that, I give you films of interest, set to debut this year, which could wind up in this year’s Oscar conversation.

Films to Compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival: May 11-22

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The Neon Demon (director: Nicolas Winding Refn, status: Completed, release date: June 2016):

Why you might like it: It’s a horror/thriller about an aspiring model (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles, only to have her youth and vitality devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will stop at nothing to get what she has.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: It’s the third film from the director whose first film Drive competed for the Palme in 2011 and won him the Best Director prize. While his last film Only God Forgives was a critical flop, there’s no reason to believe that he can’t learn from past mistakes. Fanning has become a prolific actress and seems well-suited for a young ingénue role.

Photo Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Photo Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Loving (director: Jeff Nichols, status: Post-production, release date: November 2016):

Why you might like it: The drama tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), an interracial couple who were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: After the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, there are several films cropping up this year featuring prominent roles for minorities (and even a second one about an interracial marriage, see below). This second 2016 offering from Nichols, is one such film. Given Nichols’ track record to date and the prime release date, this could be an awards player for Best Picture, Director, actor and actress.

The Last Face (director: Sean Penn, status: Completed, release date: 2016):
Why you might like it: A director of an international aid agency in Africa (Charlize Theron) meets a relief aid doctor (Javier Bardem) amidst a political/social revolution, together they face tough choices surrounding humanitarianism and life through civil unrest.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: Penn’s last film, 2007’s Into the Wild, earned high critical acclaim and went on to land a Supporting Actor nomination for Hal Holbrook. Theron and Bardem are always ones to watch: Theron won Best Actress in 2004 for Monster and was nominated again in 2006 for North Country, and Bardem was nominated for Best Actor in 2001 for Before Night Falls, he won Best Supporting Actor in 2008 for No Country for Old Men, and was last nominated for Best Actor for 2010’s Biutiful. While the two are a formidable duo, its French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos who I’m most excited to see after her remarkable turn in 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. As of now, the film lacks distribution and may be one of those pushed to 2017.

Films Likely to Appear at the Telluride Film Festival: September 2-5

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation (director: Nate Parker, status: Completed, release date: October 2016):

Why you might like it: Nat Turner (Parker), a former slave in America, leads a liberation movement in 1831 to free African-Americans in Virginia, which results in a violent retaliation from whites.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: This is one of my most anticipated films of the year and the second of those featuring prominent roles for minorities. It is also directed by the African-American Parker, who stars in the film. It premiered this year at Sundance; where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide rights to the film in a $17.5 million deal, the largest deal to be made at the fest to date. Look for this one as a Best Picture contender.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (director: Ang Lee, status: Post-production, release date: November 2016):

Why you might like it: Based on the novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, this drama concerns infantryman Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who recounts a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys halftime show that he and his squad members made an appearance during in the final hours before the soldiers returned to Iraq.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: Lee was nominated for Best Director in 2001 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he won in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, and in 2013 for Life of Pi, a film with a staggering visual achievement. He has confirmed that Billy Lynn will be shot 120 frames per second, the highest frame rate for a film to date. The film also features Kristen Stewart, who has been flirting with Academy recognition with stellar supporting turns in 2014’s Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria.

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Purple Reign


George Barany is a Rockefeller alum (1977) currently on the Chemistry faculty of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Deane Morrison, a distinguished science writer, is his U of M colleague. For more about this specific puzzle, including a link to the answer, visit here. More Barany and Friends crosswords can be found here.


1.___ coil (electrical device invented in1891)PrinceTributeGrid
6.Aussie greeting, often followed by “mate”
10.Ballplayer’s headgear
13.They keep the wheels turning
14.Song title shared by “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story”
15.Put away groceries?
16.Facility whose large glass pyramid would glow purple whenever this puzzle’s
honoree was present
19.Band boosters
20.Theater chain that merged with AMC in 2006
21.Get bushed
22.___ moss
24.Concise in speech
26.Billboard’s #1 single of 1984
30.Fish stick?
31.Scott Turow autobiographical bestseller of 1977
32.Get ready to drive, in golf
36.“___ U”
38.Number of Grammies won, as well as pronunciation of a #3 top 40 hit, by this
puzzle’s honoree
41.Small force
42.Classified, as blood
44.Land of Esau’s descendants
46.DDE’s wartime command
47.Prince’s followers
51.Big wind
54.Go ___ great length
55.Willing partner
59.Coffee, tea, or beer
62.No-win situation
63.Song that begins with a spoken eulogy to “this thing called life”
65.Bobbie Gentry wrote one to Billy Joe
66.The ___ Project (“Sleeper”)
67.Quibblers split them
68.Nothing but the bottom of the ___
69.Some mil. awards
70.Old lab heaters named after a volcano

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“The Answers My Friend …”


George Barany is a Rockefeller alum (1977) currently on the Chemistry faculty of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Robert Mark is a native New Yorker currently teaching in Thailand, and a long-time admirer of this puzzle’s theme.  For more information, including a link to the answer, visit here. More Barany and Friends crosswords can be found here. More Barany and Friends crosswords can be found here.


1.Two-person log cutter
7.Stetson or sombrero, e.g.
10.Battery terminal
15.Symbol for viscosity or index of refractionAnswersMyFriendpuzGrid
18.One way to serve curry
19.Small amounts, as ofcream
21.Actor Beatty or Sparks
22.Biff, in the past, present, and “Future”?
25.___ alai
26.Jumbo follower
27.Hawaiian beach ball?
29.Between all and none
30.Reassurance to celllist Yo-Yo?
34.Direct recruiting pitch from an iconic Uncle?
36.Tenth-century pope, better remembered in crosswords than in the history books (anagram of name of a certain rodent)
37.Took ___ for the worse
39.1990’s Indian P.M.
40.Director Tarantino
43.New York tribe, city, or lake
46.Like the walls at WrigleyField
50.One that, according to Higgins, hardly ever happens in Hertford, Hereford, and
52.They’re just this side of paradise?
54.Common street or tree
55.Clinch, as a deal
57.E w e’s m a t e
58.Near-Miss. state?
59.German candy brand
63.Malaysian palm
69.Place for prison guards?
76.Apple implement
77.Pasta, in product names
78.Off course, of course
79.Point of no return?
82.___ Paulo, Brazil
83.Word with dash or happy
86.Prof ’s e-mail address ender
87.Chiropractor’s diary?
93.Local, at times?
97.Don Draper’s domain
98.Gets game
101.“Norma ___”
103.Actors Dillon and Damon
105.Grps. of Boy or Girl Scouts
106.He’s a card
111.Annie Leibovitz, to her fans?
116.X, Y, or Z
117.Collect data or data collector
119.Acronym in the news for gravitational wave detection
120.Start of Massachusetts’ motto
121.Criticize, slangily
122.Admire Jagger or Richards on social media?
126.They may amend xword clues
127.Rubber seal
128.Grievance, slangily
129.Caught, as a butterfly
130.Susan of “The Partridge Family” and “L.A. Law”
132.NYC subway line
133.Tool box item

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Quotable quote

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen…
A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.
An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

Maria Wislawa Anna Szymborska, 1923 – 2012, Nobel Prize for Literature 1996

Life on a Roll

By Qiong Wang

Rome is a living open museum. Every road leads there. It is impossible to tell stories about an ancient city like Rome. You just don’t know where to start. The squares, the fountains, the statues, the cathedrals, the ruins and the monuments… It is “La Grande Bellezza”, the great beauty. Rome wasn’t built in one day; neither is the visit to Rome. I tried to capture its beauty from the perspective of the locals using my camera. One picture doesn’t do it justice at all.  FullSizeRender





























Growing vegetables in small spaces

By Guadalupe Astorga

image 1

Top Left: Hydroponic research in Epcot Center, Orland/Antony Pranata,CC. Top Rigt: Hydroponics/Frank Fox, CC /Bottom panels: Our Windowfarms Project

One of today’s global issues concerns the supply of fresh food to people in cities. While the carbon footprint for transporting fruits and vegetables from the areas where they are produced, to the consumers’ tables can reach high levels for longer distances, local production and consumption have several advantages. A number of new initiatives make it possible to take advantage of urban spaces to grow fresh vegetables in your own city or apartment.

In cities where the space is dominated by concrete construction, urban agriculture has shed new light into public and private spaces, promoting community interactions and the development of organic alternatives to intensive crop farming.

Different projects have taken over rooftops and unused spaces in New York City, not only to grow fresh vegetables for distribution in the local community, but also to offer a sustainable model for urban agriculture in open spaces.

Other interesting alternatives involve hydroponic cultures, which offer a very efficient way to grow different types of organic plants with no need of big spaces. In recent years, several hydroponic techniques have exploded and evolved in a plethora of varieties developed by enthusiastic farmers who have openly shared their knowledge on the internet, making videos with detailed tutorials and instructions for beginners and experienced farmers. Hydroponics are not expensive or complicated, can be started at any time of the year, and you can control what you eat.

image 2

Left panel: Hydrosock Version/Jim Flavin; Right panel: Hydroponics principle/iamozone, CC

In an example of these collaborative initiatives, also born in New York City, hydroponic vertical gardens are designed for our apartment windows, and people around the world have shared their experiences to create new innovative and esthetic designs. You will need a bit of creativity and enthusiasm to make this project in your apartment, but it is certainly worth it.

A more convenient and simpler alternative to get started wih hydroponics in your own apartment at minimal cost is the Hydrosock Version, proposed by Jim Flavin (Fig. 1, left panel). This handy design is the easiest version of hydroponics; it does not need an air pump to oxygenate the water, nor expensive or specialized materials. The roots get oxygen as the water level decreases in the reservoir. The principle is shown in Fig. 1 right panel.

I encourage you to make this simple hydroponic system at home for high yields of vegetable production and little cost. This is the proper time of the year to start if you want to harvest delicious vegetables for this summer.

You will just need:

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Louise Pearce – An Extraordinary Woman of Medicine

By Susan Russo


Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1913, the Rockefeller Institute appointed its first woman researcher, Louise Pearce, M.D., who worked as an assistant to Simon Flexner. Pearce was promoted to Associate Member in 1923, and continued in this position until 1951, when she became President of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. During her career, Pearce attained many firsts, including her 1915 election as the first woman member of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET); the second member wasn’t elected until 1929. Also, Pearce had affiliations with the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1921); the General Advisory Council of the American Social Hygiene Association (1925); the National Research Council (1931); and was elected Director of the Association of University Women in 1945. In 1921, Pearce was elected to membership in the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine, and received the Order of the Crown of Belgium, and in 1931 she was appointed Visiting Professor of Syphilology at Peiping Union Medical College in China.

Born in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1885, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended the Girls Collegiate School. She went on to receive her Bachelor’s degree in physiology and histology at Stanford University in 1907. Pearce continued her studies at Boston University, and was awarded her M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, specializing in pathology, in 1912.

While at Rockefeller, Pearce worked closely with Wade Hampton Brown, a pathologist, chemist Walter Jacobs, and immunologist Michael Hiedelberger. Their first endeavors, organized by Simon Flexner, were experiments in the treatment of syphilis, using arsenic derivatives made by Pearce and Brown in animal models. Their work was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1919. Soon after, the Rockefeller Institute sent Pearce to Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo, where she worked in a local hospital, and her laboratory to test the drug tryparsamide in human trials, saving many of the lives of syphilitic patients and patients with sleeping sickness, conditions which had previously caused almost certain fatalities. After returning to the Institute, Pearce and Brown added cancer experiments in animal models, discovering, in rabbits, the malignant epithelial tumor of the scrotum, named the Brown-Pearce Carcinoma.

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Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes.

Part XVII: Torsten Wiesel, 1981 Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

By Joseph Luna

In the late 1950’s, two scientists sat with a cat in a darkened room and flicked on a projector screen. For this particular movie night with kitty, the scientists showed a series of simple images to the cat, and between each one they waited for the cat to respond. Nearly all cat owners, myself included, have probably performed a variant of this basic experiment, whether with a treat or a feathery toy, to get hold of a cat’s finicky attention, or to divert it from a precarious vase or an exposed ankle. But the two scientists, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, first at Johns Hopkins and then at Harvard, were after something much deeper. They wanted the cat to tell them what it saw. And magically enough, they had surgically created a talking cat: an electrode was inserted into the visual cortex of the anesthetized cat’s head and set up to record from a tiny patch of the brain (rest assured the cat was fine after the experiment). By showing different images to this conked-out kitty, Hubel and Weisel aimed to find the specific stimulus that excited the area they were recording from, be it a picture of a stationary dot or a simple line moving across the screen. If they succeeded at finding the right stimulus, they would hear the characteristic rat-tat-tat of a neuron firing. In other words, a tiny and specific part of the cat’s brain would seem to be saying “yup, that’s a line right there.”

How we perceive the outside world has been a central human question for millennia, underwriting large swathes of philosophy, and later, psychology and neuroscience. In the first half of the 20th century, technological developments aimed at measuring the electrical activity of a stimulated neuron in the brain yielded a concrete path to explore how organisms perceive their surroundings. Of the five most obvious senses, studying vision seemed particularly attractive since the input was physically always the same: photons. And yet photons could be arranged in wildly complex patterns to signal, in the case of a cat, the difference between a mouse and a shampoo bottle. How did light get transformed when it hit the eye into something “recognizable”?

This was a motivating question for a generation of scientists in the Department of Physiology at Johns Hopkins Medical School in the middle of the 20th century. And one such scientist was a young faculty member named Stephen Kuffler, who, in 1948, recorded from single cells in the cat retina and found that these cells did not signal absolute levels of light to the brain, but rather they transmitted the contrast information between light and dark. Small spots of light could activate retinal neurons, whereas flooding the eye with light didn’t do so. This finding largely confirmed in a mammal what a fellow soon-to-be Hopkins faculty member (and subject of this series) H. Keffer Hartline had seen while measuring the eye of the horseshoe crab over a decade earlier. Like Hartline, Kuffler could conclude that the “raw data” from light was passed to the brain as a code that essentially said, “this part is dark and this part is light”, but what happened after the retina was a mystery.

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Neuroscience Night

By Aileen Marshall

March 14 through the 20 was National Brain Awareness Week. In honor of that, the Rockefeller University’s Science and Media Group sponsored an event called Neuroscience Night, run by the organization KnowScience. The event consisted of several talks by local scientists about their fascinating research on the brain. The topics ranged from the infant brain to the addicted brain.

Brain Awareness Week has been presented every March by the Dana Foundation for twenty years. The foundation is a non-profit that promotes neuroscience research by grants, publications and education; made up of more than 350 neuroscientists, including some Noble laureates. They publish the online journal Cerebrum. They also provide materials for organizations and groups to put on events for Brian Awareness week. Besides the Rockefeller University, many New York City institutes hosted seminars and exhibits, including Columbia University, Mount Sinai, New York University, and the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.

Rockefeller’s Neuroscience Night was organized by KnowScience, which is a non-profit science advocacy and educational organization founded and headed by Rockefeller’s own Dr. Simona Giunta. They run events to improve the awareness and understanding of science among the public, particularly adults.

The first speaker at the Neuroscience Night was Rosemarie Perry, a postdoctoral research scientist from New York University. She spoke about the infant brain. It turns out that babies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They learn a lot in their first year. The infant brain is capable of learning several different languages. Like many animals, humans go through a stage when they need a caregiver to survive. She told us how the human’s infant brain is geared toward bonding with its caregiver, in order to get what it needs. In rats there is a sensitive period, the first nine days after birth, when bonding is established.  In humans, attachment starts in the womb, where the fetus learns the mother’s scent and voice. And this attachment is bi-directional, oxytocin is released during skin to skin contact, enforcing the bond of both caregiver and infant. The caregiver can even regulate the infant’s brain. In rats, the amygdala kicks in after ten days, which is responsible for fear. Perry’s experiments have shown that the mother’s presence can block the fear response in rat pups.

The next speaker was Bianca Jones-Marlin, a postdoctoral researcher from Columbia University. Her topic was Love and the Brain. She told us that there is a chemical reaction behind love, no matter if it’s romantic, familial, or platonic. It is also oxytocin that is released during eye contact with a loved one. Oxytocin effects the reward center of the brain. Experiments have shown that oxytocin is also released when one has eye contact with one’s dog. This hormone works in the left hearing center of the brain. Jones-Marlin’s experiments with mice have shown that mice will retrieve their pups back to the nest when they hear them cry. But a virgin female in the cage will not retrieve the pup.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: Sudden Death: A Novel, by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer

By Bernie Langs

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio located at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (photo: Wikipedia)

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio located at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (photo: Wikipedia)

I often view the study of European history as a lesson in arbitrarily defined epochs populated by individuals lost in a haze of their own coping mechanisms, against the ingrained, systematic, and what they felt at the time to be wholly justified violence surrounding them. Future generations may view our current times much in the same way.

A new book Sudden Death: A Novel, by  the  Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue (now living in New York City) and translated by Natasha Wimmer, attempts to place the events of the Counter Reformation in a fictionalized setting, centering around a tennis match between the famous Italian artist Michelangelo   Merisi da Caravaggio (called “Caravaggio”; 1571-1610) and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. That both figures are so hungover that they can’t recall the events of the prior evening that has led to their vicious “dueling” on the court is a great running joke throughout the book. The historical Caravaggio is well-known as having been a violent brawler and yes, he played tennis. It is widely believed that it was an argument over a tennis match that led him to murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni. The subsequent threat of punishment by the authorities set off the chain of events leading to the artist’s own demise.

Sudden Death, graced with short chapters, has a wider sweep than the tennis match, bringing in far-flung plots that strangely eventually coalesce. Many of them center on the slightly earlier time of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. He is fictionalized as completely oblivious to the carnage he has left in his wake and later as having no sense of just how barbaric his land-grab in the name of Spain has been. Also appearing in the novel are Galileo and a host of other well-known personalities from the time of Caravaggio. Most amusing is the tracing back of the ball utilized in the tennis match, made from the packed hair of the executed second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. That human or horsehair or wool were used at the time to make tennis balls is noted by Enrigue in brief interludes, presenting source documents on the evolution of the game of tennis. This, along with countless other diversions, makes Sudden Death a truly interesting and enjoyable read.

Caravaggio is a fascinating figure in art history. Having read nonfiction accounts of his life and work and having seen much of his paintings in person, I found it interesting to see how a novel makes him come alive, if just in the imagination of a writer such as Enrigue. I could have lived without some of the more scatological details and the sections describing the artist’s sexual proclivities, but the battling Lombard in Sudden Death neatly coincides with what I’ve imagined Caravaggio to have been like as a real person.

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New York State Of Mind

This month Natural Selections interviews Ian Brown Group Leader, Comparative Bioscience Center

How long have you been living in the New York area? NYSOM

I’ve been living here for 36 years.

Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

I currently live in Brooklyn, and my favorite neighborhood is Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, it is a quite area, with nice parks.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

I think the most overrated is the convenience of the city, and the most underrated is the niceness of the people, many times it is presumed that they are tough or intimidating, but I think people here are very nice.

What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

The activity of the city, there’s always something going on. 

Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us “New Yorkers”?

I would say positive, as this Frank Sinatra song says “if you make it here you can make it anywhere”. I think this city definitely builds up your character, as you have to deal with different situations and people with very different personalities. I’ve noticed it’s easy to identify people from NYC when they are outside, because they have more character and are more confident.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

I would shut it down for a couple of hours, there are so many things going on from Sunday to Sunday, people are always going somewhere, I would just stop everybody from driving and walking and tell them: “relax”.

 What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

I like the parks, specifically Central Park, you find all kind of personalities and cultures. If the weather is nice, or if it’s snowing, I like to go there to relax, enjoy or make [play] sports. It is a beautiful place.

 What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?  

Unfortunately, I’ll have to say when the World Trade Center fell, that was big here, it brought a big change and I had never seen such devastation in the city and people.

Bike, MTA or WALK IT???

My favorite: walk, because I like to observe.

If you could live anywhere else, where might that be? 

Given that I’m a New Yorker, I like the countryside, the calm and the beach. But if I have to choose a city it would be Paris, because is not as crazy as NY, it is more laid-back.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

Yes, definitely!

Supreme Effort

By George Barany and Friends

This bipartisan politically themed puzzle was created within hours of a much-anticipated announcement by a consortium of friends of Rockefeller alum (1977) George Barany, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For more about this specific puzzle, including a link to its answer, visit here. More Barany and Friends puzzles can be found here.


  1. CPR proscd2c4ec2-fc3d-4f3d-b4fb-b0fb7d88305e
  2. Tide type
  3. Basemen may apply them
  4. Evil, to Yves
  5. Extol the virtues of
  6. Made a mess of
  7. Court org.
  8. Supreme Court originalist for three decades
  9. F on a questionnaire, e.g.
  10. W’s First Lady
  11. Quito’s nation: Abbr.
  12. Waist management program
  13. Senate Majority Leader
  14. Hockey surface
  15. ___-di-dah
  16. Pig’s digs
  17. Tried’s partner
  18. Superstar?
  19. They follow the “nus”
  20. “Mommie ___”
  21. Word rhymed with “hotel” by Elvis in “Heartbreak Hotel”
  22. Anesthetized, perhaps
  23. Admitted guilt for, as a lesser charge
  24. President who followed Article II of the Constitution three times during his two terms in office
  25. Like some knights and baseball throws
  26. Subway fare?
  27. Camel’s backbreaker?
  28. Molded, as metal
  29. “___ Ba Yah”
  30. Ma who first played in the White House at age 7
  31. Regarding, in legalese
  32. Its hubs are in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm
  33. Best Foreign Language Film of 2014
  34. Honey maker
  35. Chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
  36. Plural suffix with auction or musket
  37. Minor tautomer for majority of ketones
  38. Lubricated, like a baseball glove being broken in
  39. Half a Hollywood Hungarian
  40. Request from 50-Across to 26-Across, with respect to nomination of 73-Across to succeed 19-Across
  41. Muesli morsel
  42. Cell alternative
  43. Pay to play
  44. Yiddish laments
  45. One-named Irish Grammy winner
  46. Govt. grp. that once subcontracted work to Edward Snowden
  47. Tournament ranking

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Life on a Roll

ElodiePauwels_between two white layers ElodiePauwels_winter scenery ElodiePauwels_winter scenery-

By Elodie Pauwels

It is that time of the year when mountains are covered with snow. I took a few days off to forget all about the urban and stressful lifestyle. Walking for hours in such black & white scenery, with my steps and the distant echo of a bell or the barking of a dog as the only sound, is such a simple and relaxing joy.


Reflections on the Updated Periodic Table

By Paul Jeng

Where does science live? For me these days, it’s in the fifteen open tabs lagging my browser as I switch from email to PubMed. It’s in hot coffee in the morning and red velvet seminar cookies in the afternoon. It’s spelled out in Calibri on slides or floating around inside the heads of people arm-curling a five-pound Chipotle burrito while crossing York Avenue. But back in grade school, for many of us, science lived as outlines on posters on the wall. Nine concentric rings represented the solar system, squiggly lines denoted the borders of countries, and a grid of colored squares equaled a comprehensive catalog of all known elements. These posters were big glossy boxes of truth, inked into permanence by mysterious sources of unbridled knowledge (are school posters peer-reviewed?). As ubiquitous classroom décor, they served as road signs for navigating an educational frame of mind: science this way, English Lit that way.

The king of school posters was, unquestionably, the periodic table. What chemistry classroom or laboratory is complete without one? Few other images can claim a more complete symbolic representation of scholarship: fastidious organization, cryptic nomenclature, and stacks upon stacks of numbers. Its silhouette is unmistakable, a double-tower fortress fringed by a lanthanide-actinide moat, imposing to outsiders yet comforting for those who’ve earned citizenship within its walls. To chemistry-allergic premeds it’s a cold instrument of torture, but to science historians the tabular arrangement is a lovingly-crafted mural of the building blocks of existence. Quietly, it’s one of the most popular posters in the world. You could have a 36×24 printout delivered tomorrow by Amazon for under two dollars, or buy a vintage 1960’s linen edition shipped from Berlin through Etsy for over a grand, and everywhere in between. If chemistry were a subway system, the periodic table would be the ubiquitous MTA map. If laboratory halls were the bedroom walls of teenage girls from 1999, the periodic table would most certainly be N’Sync.

It may be tempting to view the periodic table, essentially the heart of chemistry, as a hallowed monument of science, carved in stone. In reality, the table is as much a finished product today as it was to Mendeleev in 1869. When The Rockefeller University was founded in 1901, there were 84 known elements. When I was born, that number had grown to 109. The chronically outdated periodic tables hanging around us should be regarded with pride, a remarkable testament to the speed of scientific progress and the breadth of human achievement or, alternatively, a massive conspiracy from Big Poster to boost sales revenues.

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