The Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series

By Ben DiMatteo

Now in its 56th year, The Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series is decidedly unknown to much of the campus community. But those familiar with the program know that some of the most accomplished musicians in the world played Caspary Auditorium as a live rehearsal for Carnegie Hall.

Since its inception, the series has featured performances in a wide array of genres, from chamber music, to Renaissance revival, to operatic arias, to jazz. Three dedicated caretaker scientists with a passion for music have shepherded the program across five decades, and kept the program afloat through rising and ebbing tides of interest within the Rockefeller community. Though performances often sell out, admission sales and private donations barely cover the program’s expenses.

The concert series traces its origin to 1958, shortly after its unique venue was unveiled. Caspary Auditorium’s geodesic structure was designed by modernist architect Wallace Harrison, who also led the construction of Rockefeller Center, the U.N. Complex, Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House, and Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill Co-ops.

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Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes. Part I: Alexis Carrel, 1912 Prize in Physiology or Medicine

By Joseph Luna

If there were an epicenter for a fascination with the Nobel Prize, The Rockefeller University, with 24 such awards, would be it. For its size, the university has the greatest density of Nobel prizes of any place in the world. The big-picture factors that have led to such a prestigious legacy are ones best left to historians to debate. As a graduate student, I have two much simpler questions: what was each prize for and how were the essential discoveries made?

acarrelIn this series, we’ll peel back the arcane language and suspend a bit of hindsight to explore concisely the ideas and experiments that underlie each of the university’s 24 associated Nobel prizes. From the obvious “why didn’t I think of that?” to “that can’t be true” courageous nonconformity, we’ll look into the context of the problems solved and their greater importance. For if genius really is “seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought,” I wonder what truths of the scientific process can be wrought by studying examples of genius close at hand. This isn’t to say that getting a call (or telegram) from Stockholm at five in the morning is the ultimate imprimatur of genius, but, as examples of what one university has accomplished over the past century, they’ll do just fine.

So let’s begin. We’ll start our journey with something so fundamental, that we rarely give it a passing thought: plumbing.

sutureAny organism with a circulatory system, by definition, is filled with plumbing. The human body is a veritable city of blood pipes: around 60,000 miles of vessels ferry close to 5 liters of blood, all thanks to a large and reliable heart pump. These basic components of human anatomy (of existence even), work tirelessly in the background, ignored only until something goes wrong. For a surgeon over a century ago, such failures of circulation were frustrating things to encounter. Unlike the plumbing in an actual city, where a team of welders could quickly repair a ruptured water main, there was little a surgeon could do to solve the same problem in a person rapidly losing blood. Where was the surgeon’s welding torch?

Alexis Carrel, a French experimental surgeon and the first of the university’s Nobel Prize winners, answered this call by inventing many surgical techniques used to repair blood vessels. As anesthesia and aseptic practices became widely adopted in the operating room by the early 20th century, such experimental surgery became possible, and Carrel devised cleverly simple and incredibly powerful methods that unarguably helped lay the foundation for modern organ transplantation. His basic question boiled down to this: how do I join two delicate and floppy tubes end-to-end? Many before Carrel had tackled this problem, using bits of bone or metal as rigid scaffolds for crudely sewing two blood vessels together, but complications like infection, hemorrhage, and bruising were constant problems. Carrel’s solution first required an initial detour. He left the operating room entirely and learned to sew from those who knew best: French embroiderers. Apocryphally, some say Carrel had learned embroidery from his mother in his boyhood, while others write merely that he studied under the finest embroiderers in France. What mattered was that he became so good at embroidery that his stiches across sheets of paper were fine enough to be invisible on both sides. Returning to the operating room, he perfected what is now known as Carrel’s triangulation technique for joining blood vessels together. No fancy devices were needed other than silk thread, fine embroidery needles and lots of skill, though the basic premise is ingeniously simple. Three stitches are placed at equal points around the circumference of a vessel to be joined. By pulling at these stiches, the vessel opening no longer resembles a floppy circle but a rigid triangle. Holding two such triangulated vessels end-to-end, it becomes easy to sew across the seam for a blood-tight seal (see below). Since no forceps are used to hold the edges of a blood vessel, only light and delicate silk thread, all sorts of complications were greatly reduced. Varying this basic technique, end-to-end anastomosis, Carrel performed veritable miracles of medicine. He could repair vessels of virtually any visible size (as small as “matchsticks” as one observer put it) and attach them to other vessels in all manner of ways, from junctions to loops. He devised means to repair blood vessels without exposing them to infectious agents, worked out ways to viably preserve tissues outside the body, and performed some of the first successful organ and limb transplants in animals. But Carrel’s visionary work was a full half-century before its time for wider use in humans, as he lacked antibiotics to control infection and the drugs to suppress the immune system. His lab closed upon his retirement in 1939, but the dream of transplant surgery certainly did not. As his 1912 Nobel can attest, Carrel demonstrated that the surgical part of transplantation and tissue repair was both possible and practical.

Incidentally, Carrel’s lab was located on the 6th floor of Founder’s Hall, where the gym stands today. What a sight to imagine there: a surgeon hard at work in 1912, saving a dog or a patient, carefully suturing blood vessels, aiming to forestall certain death. I doubt any have sweat more than Carrel did in that space.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

By Aileen Marshall

It’s springtime in New York, and that means the start of baseball season. There is still hope in the air for the Mets, and great expectations for the Yankees, the two New York teams.

Baseball is known as the “Great American Game,” illustrated by a commercial from about 30 years ago, which ran with the tagline “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” It is unclear exactly how American the game is. For many years it was a common belief that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, NY. The belief comes from the Mills commission, a 1905 report by the National League. This was the basis for the location of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In recent years it has become known that this origin is a myth. Abner Doubleday was a Civil War general, but he was a cadet at West Point in 1839, and his family had moved from Cooperstown the year before. When he died, he left many papers and letters, none of which even mentioned baseball.

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Ten Years of Natural Selections

By Daniel Briskin

The first issue of Natural Selections was published in February of 2004. In these past ten years, much has happened, on campus and off. For all that has happened, however, much has stayed the same, including the humor. This year we are republishing the best and most timeless pieces from the corresponding month in 2004.

Continuing on with our salute to the tenth anniversary of Natural Selections, here is this month’s republished comic from 2004.

Lost in translation

Midday Melodies

By Derek Simon

What makes great art? This is a question that thinkers have been pondering ever since civilization’s infancy and I dare not attempt to answer it in less than a page. Instead, I’ll posit what makes a great artist by using, in my opinion, the classical music world’s finest champion: Ludwig van Beethoven.

Of all composers, Beethoven is probably the most well-known. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies but almost none are recognizable to the casual listener. Mozart wrote 41, but the first 20 or so are completely forgettable. Beethoven wrote only nine symphonies but at least two are so famous that even people that have never listened to a piece of classical music have likely heard them: the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (duh-duh-duh-DUH) and the last movement of the Ninth, the Ode to Joy. Beyond that, numerous other pieces of his music are easily recognizable (the Turkish March, Für Elise, and the Moonlight Sonata are examples.) But why is this? Clearly, there’s something universal about Beethoven’s musical idiom, something in the sound he produces that appeals to most humans. Therefore, universality is the first characteristic that I believe defines a truly great artist.

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Ten Years of Natural Selections

By Daniel Briskin

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 19.33.28This month’s issue marks the tenth anniversary of Natural Selections; issue one was published in February of 2004. In these past ten years, much has happened, on-campus and off. For all that has happened, however, much has stayed the same, including the humor. This year we are republishing the best and most timeless pieces from the corresponding month in 2004.

Midday Melodies

By Derek Simon

A friend of mine, who despises classical music, once sniped to me that “the background of movies” is the only fit place for “that kind of music.” Ironically, she hit upon a truth about music, but not in the way that she initially intended. It is true that you often hear classical-esque music during movies but why is that? Perhaps instrumental music is a natural partner to visual storytelling? Classical music takes this interpretation to an abstract level: a story without words or pictures, a story entirely comprised of sounds.

No composer in history ever set about writing a piece of music “at random.” Beethoven didn’t just start scribbling notes to the Ninth Symphony (after all, there are thousands of them). He had ideas in his head that he wanted to express through music, or, in other words, he wanted to tell a story. And just like any other story, virtually every piece of classical music has a beginning, middle, and end. And there are also main characters and minor characters: primary themes and secondary themes. There’s depth and complexity to the characters, as depicted by harmonies and various types of melodic modulations. The plot itself is how the melodies transform, interweave, and reform throughout the piece, usually leading to some kind of climax and ending in some sort of resolution. Part of the fun is trying to decipher how these disparate elements combine to create the whole piece, the complete tale.

Or one can simply listen to and enjoy the music. Classical music, like every other genre of music, is simply sound that makes us feel after all. A universal theme of every culture is the creation and love of music. Classical music is the Western world’s historic contribution to this anthology. So sit back and analyze away or close your eyes and let the music tell its own story.

As of this writing, the Tri-I Concerts for December and January have not been finalized, but I present here what has been confirmed.

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New York State of Mind

Olof Dallner, Post-doctoral Associate in the Friedman Lab

by May Dobosiewicz


From: Stockholm, Sweden

Been in New York: 4 years

Lives in: Upper East Side

What was the first thing you did when you moved here?

Went to IKEA. I thought, this is kind of sad—first day and I go to a Swedish store. But then I took the boat back to Wall Street and walked into a film shoot with the Rock and Samuel L Jackson. I was standing in front of them and thought, no, this does not feel like Sweden anymore. This is different.

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Classic Classifieds

The classifieds are a great place to borrow, buy, sell, and make announcements. Additionally, they can be a means to infuse humor into the doldrums of campus life. In this column, with the permission of the author, we publish classifieds we have found to be espe- cially entertaining. If you think a classified is worthy of publishing, submit yours to Natural Selections by emailing nseditors at

Classifieds - Dinosaur Egg

Midday Melodies

By Derek Simon

To say that New York is a musically rich city is the equivalent of saying it is a very large city: technically true but completely missing the point. Conveniently, Rockefeller happens to be located in this cultural hub, and as such we all have the opportunity to go listen to this impressive array of world-renowned musicians. But as is so often the case, with great talent comes great ticket prices. One of the rare exceptions to this rule happens to be located in our very own Caspary Auditorium every Friday at 12pm. Continue reading

A Joan Mitchell Painting in The Rockefeller University Collection

By Bernie Langs


© Estate of Joan Mitchell

I hold the opinion that Abstract Expressionism was the last great movement in the history of painting. This school, or style, emerged in America (and centered in New York) after World War II, and its many master artists would include the likes of Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler. Abstract Expressionism features a bold technique and centers around emotions, sometimes those buried in the unconscious of the artist.

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WISeR (Women In Science at Rockefeller): A New Initiative

By Asma Hatoum, Mariko Kobayashi, and Alessia Deglincerti

WISeR(Logo)This summer, a small group of postdocs came together to launch a new initiative called wiser (Women In Science at Rockefeller) to begin to tackle a persistent problem: the underrepresentation of female leaders in academic and non-academic sectors of science.

While women hold 60% of all bachelor’s degrees and constitute 48% of the overall workforce, females in leadership positions, particularly in the stem (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, remain a minority. In 2009, the National Research Council released a congressionally mandated report on gender differences in science and engineering faculty at key transition points in their careers. One of the most striking findings in the report was that a gender gap is most apparent at the phd to faculty transition—women are simply not applying to tenure-track positions at research-intensive institutions. This gender gap is particularly pronounced in the biological sciences: in the 1999-2003 period, women received 45% of biology phds but represented only 26% of applicants for tenure-track faculty positions.

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Happy Halloween!

By Aileen Marshall


A jack-o’-lantern, made from a pumpkin, lit from within by a candle

Halloween is coming up at the end of this month on October 31st. It has become a very big holiday in this country, for children as well as adults, and it is growing in other countries. How did Halloween get started?

The holiday we know today is actually a combination of a pagan harvest festival and a Christian holy day to honor the dead. It actually started in Ireland in medieval times as a harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced so win). Samhain in Gaelic means “summer’s end.” It was the end of the Celtic calendar, the start of the “dark half of the year.” It coincided with the end of the growing season, with the crops dying off and days getting shorter. The ancient Celts believed it was a day the deads’ spirits could return to earth and visit their relatives or on which evil spirits possess someone. Wearing costumes was a way of fooling ghosts and demons. People would also light bonfires and carve out a turnip and put a candle in it as a means of keeping evils sprits away. There is an ancient Irish folktale of a man named Jack who tricked the devil, and trapped him in one of those carved turnips. The devil eventually got out and cursed Jack to wander the earth every Halloween carrying his lantern. Hence the term “jack o’ lantern” or Jack of the lantern. It was also common to have games of fortune telling. One game was to peel an apple so the skin came off in one piece and throw the peel over one’s shoulder. It was said the peel would form the first letter of the person he or she would marry. In England and Scotland people would go “guising,” visiting friends in costume and asking for food or coins.

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New York State of Mind

This Month Natural Selections interviews Carly Gelfond, Assistant Director of Development. Country of origin: United States.

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

I’ve been living here for seven years, since I graduated from college in central New York State. I’m originally from New Jersey.

2. Where do you live?

I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It takes me an hour to get to and from Rockefeller, but it’s worth it. I love where I am at both ends of the trip.

3. Which is your favorite neighborhood?

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Markus Library Reopens with new Study Areas and New Staff Member

By John Borghi

To walk into the Rita and Frits Markus Library today is to enter both an elegant space for members of the Rockefeller community to research and study and an establishment ready to meet the information needs of a twenty-first century research institution. After passing by the security desk in Founder’s Hall, visitors to the newly renovated library can either proceed down the stairs to the quiet study spaces and collaborative research areas located on levels A and B or up the stairs to the historic second floor reading room. In addition to the significant physical improvements, this latest renovation also marks a development in library services that reflects advancements in scientific inquiry on campus and in the broader research community.

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Football (The American Kind)

By Aileen Marshall

Have you ever wondered what your lab mates are talking about when they discuss Sunday’s football game every Monday morning? Or have you seen a game on television and tried to follow it? Have no fear, football is a very exciting and entertaining sport that can be enjoyed by all. The season just started on Labor Day weekend, so here are some “Cliff’s Notes” to help you enjoy the game.

For those who are not familiar with the game, it is played on a 100-yard-long field, with every 10 yards numbered. At each end of the field is a 10-yard-long “end zone.” The last yard line on each end of the field is called the “goal line.”  Goal posts are at the back of each end zone. Each game is divided into four 15-minute quarters, with a “halftime” period after the second quarter. Each team defends its half of the field. The object of the game is to get the oblong-shaped ball into the opponent’s end zone and score points. Continue reading

New York State of Mind

This month Natural Selections interviews Jim Keller, Grants Management Specialist in the Department of Sponsored Research & Program Development. Country of origin: United States.

1. How long have you been living in New York?

I moved here from Buffalo, NY nine days before 9/11—September 2, 2001.

2. Where do you live?

Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but I’m about to move on up to the East Side! Continue reading

The University is Getting All the Ducks in a Row to Fight Mosquitoes

by Melody Li

(Photograph courtesy of The Rockefeller University)

Although this summer in New York City has proven extremely rainy and stormy, Rockefeller University has declared drought for its fountains this year. A recent petition addressed to the University community (although the University staff did not receive the email) might shed light on the rationale behind the decision. Some parents and professors on campus, are concerned that the fountains might provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which were particularly aggressive last summer and might have spread from the Faculty Club gardens all the way to the children’s playgrounds. Quoted from the petition, “Through the end of summer children were coming back home every day covered in bites, just from being in the playgrounds, despite daily and frequent application of repellents.” In addition to the children, the Plant Operations and Security personnel were being bitten constantly as their jobs require them to work outside most of the time. Due to the fear that mosquitoes might carry West Nile virus and/or other emerging viruses, the parents’ petition urged the University to shut down the fountains for the year.

The Philosopher’s Garden fountains were designed as part of the University landscape master plan in the 1950s by the late, seminal landscape architect Dan Kiley, featured in the May 2010 Natural Selections issue ( The fountains were installed as part of that plan in 1956, to dampen the traffic noise from York Avenue and to create a beautiful visual display in the Continue reading

The Fourth of July

by Aileen Marshall

This month we celebrate the Fourth of July. But do you know what we are really celebrating? It’s not just a day of picnics and fireworks. The holiday is also known as Independence Day. It marks the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, signifying America’s independence from the United Kingdom.

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution recognizing the separation of the thirteen colonies from England. Thomas Jefferson finalized the Declaration of Independence and it was signed on July 4 of that year. The Revolutionary War went on for another seven years, but we celebrate on the day the independence was declared. John Adams wrote that the day “will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.  It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [Shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Continue reading