“To become a successful scientist you must be resilient.” A phrase like this may sound familiar or perhaps even trite. Most would agree that the path to a Ph.D. (or M.D.) requires the ability to cope with failure and to regroup, restrategize, and reenergize after setbacks. However, is resilience a trait that can be learned? If so, how?
In mid-March, Sharon Milgram, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) gave a talk about “Becoming a Resilient Scientist.” The event was cosponsored by two organizations at Memorial Sloan Kettering: The Gerstner Sloan Kettering Women in Science and the Female Association for Clinicians, Educators and Scientists (FACES).
Milgram was an extremely engaging and entertaining lecturer who used her story-telling skills to impress upon the large audience of scientists and M.D.s the importance of self-reflection and subsequent intentional action to become more resilient. The graduate students introducing Milgram opened up the talk with a lighter mood, sharing that when Milgram had first applied to graduate school (with goals of becoming a professor of physical therapy), she was not accepted. When she applied again, she ended up enrolling in a cell biology program. Then, she had to take her qualifying exam twice (and delayed taking it the second time for fear of failing again). But now she has her own lab and leads the NIH OITE, a testament to the fact that failures or slow starts can be more than overcome.
Milgram began by asserting that we are all life-long learners, particularly as scientists, since we are often learning new techniques and working on new problems that require entering semi-uncharted (and often uncomfortable) territory. Milgram adapted a summary of the four stages of learning a new skill from management expert Ken Blanchard. When we first embark on learning something new, we are “enthusiastic beginners,” and generally have low competence but are very confident. We then move on to the “disillusioned learner” stage in which we are more competent, but lose confidence, perhaps because at this point, we are aware of how little we actually know. When we are at the disillusioned learner stage, we generally feel very uncomfortable. Here, it is key to be resilient and move forward in order to reach the stage Milgram called “cautious performer,” where our competence and confidence have both increased, and finally the stage of the “high achiever,” where we have mastered the skill at hand and hence are much more confident. As scientists, we are often cycling through these stages and it is key to remember that each stage is only temporary.
In order to keep moving forward when we are experiencing a time of low confidence, we have to acknowledge our emotions but not drown in them. Resilience is the ability to both adapt and grow through adversity. We must navigate through the obstacles with both “intention and skill.” Milgram emphasized that resilience can be learned, but only if we are willing to reflect on how we currently deal with adversity.
We need to learn to be resilient at a time when we aren’t facing major challenges, so that in the face of adversity we are prepared to tackle roadblocks. Milgram outlined a few steps we can take in order to become more resilient: First, we should try to learn from past experiences; journaling can be a good technique to reflect on times in which we have succeeded in moving forward and times we could have done better. Second, developing strong relationships with peers and mentors is key and helps to remember that we are part of a larger community; we are not in this alone. Third, it is crucial to use resources and be proactive. Every institution has resources available and we need to learn how to ask for help when we need it. In some cases, counseling is also an important resource for people to utilize. Finally, we should be thoughtful about how we approach setbacks in our lives and careers and become more mindful of the “self-talk,” often negative, that we engage in during times of setback.
Milgram then elaborated more on negative self-talk. Inspired by Marshall Rosenberg’s techniques of non-violent communication, Milgram asked us to imagine both jackals and giraffes (jackals conjuring up the image of vicious creatures, and giraffes, peaceful, graceful ones). After we fail at something, we often tell ourselves stories in “jackal” language, rather than “giraffe” language. Furthermore, the stories we tell ourselves are often far more negative than the situation warrants. We may experience cognitive distortions or automatic negative thoughts that make us feel hopeless. Our brain has a negativity bias, because being anxious and on high alert has evolutionary advantages, keeping us safe from danger. However, negativity can be harmful when we are not in danger, but are doing something new and uncomfortable.
Milgram delineated five types of negative self-talk, asking the audience to raise our hands if we identified with any of the five. The audience was filled with giggles at this time, as most people found themselves strongly identifying with at least one or two of the categories that Milgram described:
- All or nothing: We tell ourselves that if anything goes wrong, the whole endeavor was a failure.
- Catastrophizing: We exaggerate the implications of a failure and how it may affect a much bigger part of our lives or career.
- Mindreading: We make assumptions about what someone else is thinking (perhaps for example, after a conversation with a Principal Investigator). Milgram calls this a “special kind of fortune telling.”
- Minimizing: We downplay the importance of our accomplishments or positive qualities. This can also play into “imposter fears”—we tell ourselves “it was just luck.”
- Over-Generalization: We apply one negative event to others, assuming that because one thing went wrong, others will too.
To overcome these types of negative self-talk, the first step is to recognize and acknowledge them and then to talk back to them. Milgram suggests trying to think about our negative thoughts at a distance, thinking about how logical or scientific our fears and anxiety are, i.e., what evidence do we have to really back them up? Then, try to find inspiration from something positive, be it an affirmation, a phrase, even an image that strengthens you. Journaling and talking about our fears and anxieties is also very useful.
The second part of Milgram’s talk focused on imposter fears, which are very common among students. People who fear failure, have perfectionist tendencies, and compare themselves to others are more likely to have imposter fears. External factors (such as messages from friends and family, or organizational culture) can also feed into imposter fears. Imposter fears are normal, but if unchecked they can seriously increase stress over the course of a career and ultimately result in self-sabotaging behavior, such as not applying for new opportunities or not studying. To overcome imposter fears, we need to normalize them by reminding ourselves that they are a common response to new situations, but we also need to find meaning in other aspects of our lives, so we are able to move forward and not let these fears hold us back. It is crucial to think about “what brings meaning to our days, months, years,” and ideally, we should find meaning in relationships or activities separate from our work; this helps us stay resilient. At this point Milgram addressed what she calls the “elephant in the room,” the fact that the culture in science and medicine doesn’t always value self-care, but she challenged us to fight against the culture and try to change it. At the end of her talk, Milgram summed it all up by reminding us that in order “to do well, we have to be well.”
The Piero Tour in Italy
While familiarizing myself over the years with the pictures painted by the Masters of the Italian Renaissance, I have found that one artist stands out as singularly enigmatic in his body of work, Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492). I have read various summaries about della Francesca in art history books and enjoyed Kenneth Clark’s detailed study where he analyzes how the artist’s few surviving works leave the viewer in a state of dumbstruck awe. I became deeply interested in the artist, after reading an essay by art historian Michael Baxandall which focuses on the visual tricks utilized by della Francesca in the “Resurrection” fresco and other ideas about its creator.
I first heard about “The Piero Tour” in early 2018 while vacationing in London. My wife and I had gone to see a performance of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” where we were glad to be among an audience mostly filled by natives of London or the United Kingdom, including to our delight the famous actor, Sir Ian McKellen. After the production, I spotted an impeccably dressed gentleman striding by holding the program booklet in his hand. I called out, “What did you think of the play?” initiating a twenty-five minute, robust discussion covering a wide range of cultural topics. When I mentioned the sublime collection of della Francesca’s major paintings I’d viewed that day at the National Gallery, the gentleman agreed that there is a mysterious quality to della Francesca like no other artist and he insisted that we must take The Piero Tour around Italy, centering on the city of Arezzo and surrounding smaller towns where the Master’s finest works are concentrated. In late 2018, my step-sister, Jen, was visiting New York from Milan with her Italian-born husband, Gui, and when I told them of our London conversation, Giu nodded and said, “Of course, The Piero Tour. I’ve done it and you have to go as well!”
Months later, I read a fascinating scholarly book by Professor Carlo Ginzburg who is currently teaching at University of California Los Angeles. In “The Enigma of Piero: Piero Della Francesca,” Professor Ginzburg combs through the historical record like an art history Sherlock Holmes to identify specific portraits embedded in della Fancesca’s frescoes and paintings and makes countless, detailed discoveries on the meanings of such masterpieces such as “The Flagellation,” which has defied narrative understanding for centuries. Professor Ginzburg also undertakes a complex deconstruction of the fresco cycle in Arezzo known as “The Legend of the True Cross.”
This March, my wife and I took a vacation in Italy, staying thirty minutes outside of Pisa in a quiet hillside area. We drove to Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa and enjoyed the art, food, and wine of Tuscany. When I had emailed Jen prior to the visit, she and Gui said they would meet us in Arezzo for a day trip, the plan being that they’d give us the truncated version of The Piero Tour.
Arriving in Arezzo on a brisk morning, the four of us made our way to the church of San Francesco to view della Francesca’s large set of frescoes, the above mentioned “Legend” cycle. The four of us stood in the uncrowded chapel space in awe, raising a pointed finger now and then to share the discovery of an unexpected detail. Most of our time in San Francesco was spent silently ingesting the power and beauty of this wonder of the world.
“The Legend” frescoes are a high point of Italian Renaissance art. The cycle is centered a thirteenth century tale of how the wood from the Garden of Eden was eventually used to construct the cross on which Christ was crucified. The Bacci family in Arezzo commissioned it in the mid-1440s and it was most likely completed in 1466. Scenes depicted in the upper registers include “The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood,” “The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba,’ “The Death of Adam,” “Exaltation of the Cross,” “The Dream of Constantine,” and “Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau.” Professor Ginzburg’s book on della Francesca explains the meaning of these works, noting that the frescoes display events with Old Testament figures as well as those who lived in the pagan world at the rise of Christianity, such as Constantine the Great prior to his conversion to the new faith. Ginzburg also describes how the Legend cycle depicts tensions, both religious and political, in the mid-fifteenth century Eastern and Western worlds of Europe and beyond, by pointing out in one example, that the portrait of Constantine the Great in the frescoes is none other than John VIII Palaiologos who served as the penultimate reigning Byzantine Emperor, ruling from 1425 to 1448. The emperor’s portrait is used to similar ends in della Francesca’s painting of “The Flagellation.” It is suggested by Ginzburg that those in the circle of della Francesca’s patrons knew and had met with Palaiologos.
Ginzburg explains why della Francesca chose certain real-life individuals for portraits strategically placed within the frescoes, discovering that these faces recur in other smaller paintings by the artist and with similar discrete intentions. But much of what I’d read slipped away from me while marveling at the art in San Francesco that morning. The beautiful colors of the landscape, garments, and skin tones are muted and reassuring, especially the blues and reds. Later in the day as we drove around the area, the cloud cover receded and the blue sky overhead taught me more about della Francesca’s eye and brushstrokes than anything one could read in a book. The sublime skies of his paintings singularly match those viewed in Arezzo.
The men and women depicted by della Francesca in “The Legend” frescoes exude an inner quality of delicate grace and refinement. As we continued through the day, I noticed this aspect in other paintings by him and many others of the region. Regardless of whether you buy into established Christianity or not, the paintings often teach a lesson on the finest qualities of mankind’s soul. Depictions of the so-called “higher” human attributes through the brush or by the chisel in statues, make them more than a fanciful display of the talent of an artist. This art acts to encourage us all to do better, be better people, and to think better of each other and our higher potential in life. Centuries-old divine attributes displayed by posed, static, artificially-created individuals, stories, or landscapes, can offer nothing short of essential life lessons that even my fellow hardened agnostics and atheists should gladly embrace, stripping away the religious context and retaining the best of the rest.
Leaving San Francesco, the four of us made our way to Arezzo’s cathedral, where Gui led us briskly down an aisle to stand before della Francesca’s more obscure fresco from 1460 depicting Saint Mary Magdalene. Mary’s garments are painted with simple, subtle tones, and her features, though individual, display della Francesca’s standard facial physiognomy, the broad nose, full lips, and heavy-lidded eyes, which may express anything from fatigue to resignation or perhaps a quiet inner state of enlightenment. “The Magdalene” was an overwhelming joy to behold and it felt very special to be in its presence in the magnificent cathedral.
We next drove to the Museo della Madonna del Parto located in the nearby town of Monterchi. della Francesca’s “Madonna del Parto” was most likely produced after 1457 and it only survives as a fragment. The fresco survived an earthquake in the late 1700s and has moved multiple times. The Museo has a nicely presented short film explaining the complex meaning of the work and gives detailed geometric graphics of how the master’s placement of the Madonna and two attending angels are set with mathematic precision. The “Madonna del Parto” is on view in the Museo as the only work in a small, white-walled room. It’s a beautiful painting of the pregnant Virgin, yet I was very much distracted by the modern setting. Much of its power and meaning was lost to me by not seeing in situ in a Gothic or Renaissance church among other surviving statues, frescoes, altar works, and paintings from the time period. I couldn’t make total sense of the art in its fragmented state, and could not coalesce an aesthetic or emotional reaction into some kind of whole.
We continued the tour by driving to the town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro (Sansepolcro), where della Francesca was born and where we later toured his unexpectedly large family home in the city. Sansepolcro was alive with Medieval and Renaissance reverberations all over its joyful streets. Two major works by the artist are on view at the Museo Civico de Sansepolcro, “The Polyptych of the Misericordia” and the extremely famous “Resurrection.” The oil painting of the former centers on the motif of the Virgin of Mercy. The Museo Civico is a more traditional museum than the one housing the “Madonna del Parto” and the “Misericordia” maintains an incredible power and force on viewing. After studying the painting for a long period, I suddenly recognized from Professor Ginzburg’s book the figure kneeling on the far left beneath the Madonna as della Francesca’s patron, Giovanni Bacci, who also commissioned with his family “The Legend” cycle in Arezzo. The mystery of della Francesca and his overwhelming power was stronger in the “Misericordia” than in any other we viewed that day. The central panel and its surrounding smaller pieces, as well as the predella (the smaller panels at the base of an altarpiece) and the tympanum (the pediment panel pictures above the main images) sweep deep to the mind’s interior defying translation into words or emotional adjectives.
“Resurrection” was painted in the 1460s for the city’s Town Hall, which is now the Museo Civico where it remains, though not in its original room. The detached fresco is displayed on a wall in a large space, which was undergoing renovation. It was the only work of art on view besides two small fragments that were reproductions of frescoes that are out on loan. I’d waited decades to see the “Resurrection” and although it was remarkable, once again, to view it in a white-walled space and not in a church or even with its artistic “family” of paintings in a museum, distorted my attempted meditation. In any case, it was incredible to actually see in person the well-known sleeping Roman soldiers, including a supposed self-portrait of the young della Francesca. The mysterious landscape background, half-alive in foliage and half-dead, is haunting. The image of Christ, climbing out of the sarcophagus in defiance of death elicited an odd reaction from me. Perhaps through a fault of memory of the reproductions in books, I had expected Christ to look fatigued and weak, but found his large body muscular in tone and in an almost inappropriate state of power given his recent trauma. I hope to return one day to the Museo to take more time studying this invaluable work of art.
During our visit, we took a detour to visit a small church built on the remains of the building where Saint Francis of Assisi retreated at times for meditation in the thirteenth century. The complex is embedded in the mountains of the area and in contrast to the countryside my wife and I had driven through during our stay near Pisa; with manicured, rolling hills speckled with graceful cypresses and other trees, this was a semi-wild, rolling forest and the view from the church revealed no other structures in sight. There were a couple of cars at the site, but we saw no other person inside or outside the tiny buildings. The view was spectacular, and out of nowhere we were joined by a friendly cat, who later accompanied us up the hill and back to our car. I joked that it was the ghost of the Saint, noting the irony that the man who had famously preached to the birds was now a feline.
After a relaxing dinner in Arezzo, we walked the dark streets towards the arches in the old walls leading to the car park. The wind and cold picked up and we were the only four people on the last cobblestone street lined with old stone buildings from the Middle Ages. Flags flying above rippled and crackled in the wind, and as we passed a sculpted display on the walls depicting the coats of arms of the old families of Arezzo, I mused that these statements of civic pride had stood there for hundreds of years and would be there for hundreds more. As my wife and I parted with hugs and smiles from our gracious guides, Jen and Gui, I was warmed by the idea that I’d had one of the best days of my life.
For this issue, Natural Selections interviews Malu, the dog who lives with Tiago Siebert Altavini (Gilbert Lab, The Rockefeller University) and Patricia Saletti. Malu speaks Portuguese and I only know 10 words of it, but her parents were willing and capable translators for our interview. I love animals, please write me at email@example.com if you have pets!
Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?
Malu: I’m 5, which in human years is about 36 years old.
PV: Is there a story behind your name?
M: Malu is actually short for Maria Luiza, which my parents only use when they are mad at me. That doesn’t happen often though.
PV: What is your first memory?
M: I’ll never forget the day I met my best friend, Nina. She lives with my grandparents and we spent much of our childhood together. We used to play a lot in the backyard. Unfortunately, I don’t see her much anymore because she lives in Brazil and I live here.
PV: Who are your parents? When did you meet them?
M: I live with Patricia and Tiago, my mom and dad. I met them in August 2013 when I moved in with them.
PV: How do they belong in the Tri-I community?
M: My dad works in the Gilbert lab as a postdoc. My mom is also a postdoc but works far away in the Bronx, but she has many friends in the Tri-I community.
PV: Where do you live?
M: I live in Scholars Residence, the tall building close to the university where my dad works.
PV: What are your favorite smells of New York City?
M: Oh, I love to smell everything. My mom always complains that we take too long when we go for a walk. I guess that’s why my dad does most of the walking with me.
PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
M: Definitely in Brasilia so I could be close to my best friend, Nina. But I have to say I would be tempted to live closer to the beach. I love the beach, it’s like a huge dog park with all that sand.
PV: What are your favorite foods?
M: Chicken and carrots! Not necessarily together. I usually get chicken flavored dog food and whenever my dad is cooking I cry by the kitchen countertop to see if he’ll give a little piece of vegetable. If I hear him cutting carrots, I come running. I also like to eat fruits.
PV: What is your favorite weekend activity in New York City?
M: Going to the dog park. I don’t care much about the other dogs to be honest, but I get to play “catch the ball” a lot, which is my favorite game. I don’t go much anymore though. I got sick after going to one of these parks and now my parents are afraid of taking me again. I also like going to Central Park and to the beach.
PV: Besides your human roomie, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?
M: I have many friends in the area, but if I had to choose one, it would be Sofia from the Freiwald Lab. We used to be neighbors and I would play with her all the time. I usually stay with her when my parents are out of town. We play a lot and she teaches me Spanish.
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
M: I tend to get very excited after my morning walk. When I come back from walking, I run around the house, play with my toys and try really hard to get everyone’s attention. One day I was particularly agitated and decided to jump on the bed. Now, the bed is too tall for me, but on that day I was feeling so energetic I was sure I could do it. I took some distance, ran towards the bed, jumped and hit the side of the bed with my chest and fell to the floor on my back. I didn’t get even close. I didn’t find it too funny at the moment but my parents laughed the whole morning.
PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?
M: No, my parents say I’m too young for social media.
PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?
M: To open the door and go out by myself. I love going out, to the park, to parties, to trips. The problem is sometimes my parents don’t take me with them and I have to stay home by myself until they come back.
On May 10th, Collette L. Ryder of the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration at The Rockefeller University will be performing Rachmaninoff Vespers (All-Night Vigil, Op. 37) with the NYCHORAL group at St. Bartholomew’s Church. The New York Choral Society describes Rachmaninoff’s 1915 work as “quiet, reflective, and deeply moving…a majestic work that elevates the spirit by its expressiveness and captivates the listener with its sheer beauty.” The performance begins at 8 p.m. and discounted tickets ($35) are available by contacting Collette (firstname.lastname@example.org / x8054). Visit NYCHORAL for more information.
Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release the music video, “Yeast Cell Growth Meets The Beatles.” This video, presented by John LaCava’s Sounds of Science and featured in the Imagine Science Film Festival, is a fusion of art and science, with laboratory films taken by Andrej Ondracka and music by The Beatles (composed by John Lennon/ Paul McCartney with a coda by Chip Taylor) performed by Bernie Langs. The video can be found on Bernie Langs’ YouTube page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
Perspective makes parallel lines look like they will join somewhere in the distance. The laws of geometry seem thrown into disorder! This distortion however only exists when the scenery is observed from a particular point of view. These kinds of pictures are an invitation to discovery and travel for me. What about you?
The Majesty of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
Jim Keller and Dom Olinares
Following the devastating fire on April 15th, let’s take a minute to remember how the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was meant to be seen, in all its magnificent glory. These photos were taken during our trip to Paris last year.
As we watched the flames engulf the Cathedral on the news, including its timber central spire, we felt helpless. Our hearts ached for France and for the world.
Although the cause of the fire is still unknown, on April 16, the Paris prosecutor said that nothing his office had learned suggested a deliberate act. The investigators most strongly suspect a case of “accidental destruction by fire,” but they have not ruled anything out at this early stage.
Whatever the cause may have been, in the words of French President Emmanuel Macron: “We will rebuild Notre-Dame together.” Less than 24 hours after the fire had broken out, over €800 million had been pledged for the Cathedral’s reconstruction. True to his word, an international fundraiser was launched by Macron the very next day.
Please visit http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/ for more information.
Natural Selections Interviews Rockefeller’s Viviana Risca, Principal Investigator of the Laboratory of Genome Architecture and Dynamics
At the age of fourteen, Viviana Risca spent her summer break unlike most teenagers. Every morning, she took the train from Long Island to work in Dr. Daniel Eichinger’s parasitology laboratory at New York University. Despite the cabinet full of dead worms in formaldehyde she had to pass every morning, this first exposure to biological research was highly influential in propelling her into a lifetime of research. Since then she has been excited about using molecular techniques to understand the processes that occur in cells.
Viviana has now joined the Rockefeller community as one of the two new tenure-track assistant professors hired in 2018. After completing her Ph.D. in Biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, she continued her scientific career as a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University with Professor William J. Greenleaf. Viviana is interested in the biophysical rules that contribute to the dynamics and stability of the genome. In addition, she wants to understand how the three-dimensional genome architecture can regulate DNA-based processes.
Alice Gadau: What is the central question you are trying to address in your lab, and how is this an expansion from your past work?
Viviana Risca: The three-dimensional structure of the genome is controlled by its association with a variety of proteins, together making up a DNA-protein complex we call chromatin. Through the efforts of large-scale sequencing projects, we now know much of the linear sequence of bases that make up the human genome, but we are still far from fully understanding the mechanisms that control how and when the information encoded in DNA sequence is read out by transcription. A skin cell and a muscle cell contain the same genome, but they express different sets of genes that give rise to their unique identities.
My lab seeks to understand how three-dimensional chromatin structure controls the ways in which various proteins, including those involved in transcription, access their binding sites on DNA in order to perform their biological functions. One of the driving hypotheses of our work is that chromatin structure acts as an integrator of many molecular inputs to modulate access to DNA. I am particularly interested in how chromatin modifications, inter-molecular interactions, and polymer effects give rise to specialized parts of the cell’s nucleus that stably repress transcription and help maintain cell identity and normal cell function. Both chromatin structure and the processes that shape it are often perturbed in cancer, as well as during aging, and I hope that our work on these fundamental processes will provide useful leads toward better cancer therapies and diagnostics.
As a postdoc at Stanford, I worked on exploring how the landscape of enzyme-accessible chromatin can give us insights into the regulatory networks that control gene expression in several cell types, including a cancer model, using a popular method called ATAC-seq. I also did a lot of technology development, which resulted in RICC-seq, a method for mapping chromatin fiber structure at high resolution, and ChAR-seq, a method for mapping contacts between RNA and DNA genome-wide. In my own lab, we will continue to use and develop these technologies, applying them toward the goal of understanding the basic biophysical and molecular mechanisms responsible for stable transcriptional repression and overall control of access to genomic DNA.
AG: How does three-dimensional genome architecture contribute to DNA regulatory processes?
VR: Since the 1920s when Emil Heitz coined the terms euchromatin and heterochromatin, we have known that the cell nucleus is divided between regions of high and low chromatin density. Since then, we have learned that organization of chromatin is far from random—it is in fact organized at multiple length scales.
At short length scales, every 150-200 bp of eukaryotic genomes is wrapped around roughly 10 nm-wide histone complexes called nucleosomes. Regions of DNA that are depleted of nucleosomes tend to be hyper-accessible to exogenous enzymes we use to probe them, and we interpret these regions to be also accessible to endogenous proteins like transcription factors, chromatin remodelers and polymerases. Indeed, many of these proteins seem to localize to nucleosome-depleted DNA. We also know that some histone modifications, like lysine acetylation, is associated with low-density, euchromatic regions of the genome that tend to be more accessible to protein binding. The high-density, heterochromatic parts of the genome are less well understood, from a structural standpoint, and many labs, including my own, are currently trying to decipher the mechanisms that drive the exclusion of transcriptional machinery from these silent genomic regions. Candidate mechanisms that have been proposed include occlusion of binding sites by DNA buried in compacted chromatin, chemical exclusion by phase-separated liquid domains, and simple volume exclusion from high density regions.
We also know that there is functional communication between genomic regions at much longer length scales spanning tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of kilobases. Enhancer elements in the genome, which are acetylated, hyperaccessible, and bound by transcription factors when active, somehow must communicate with gene promoter regions because they regulate these promoters. This is thought to happen via DNA looping interactions in three dimensions, but the exact nature and dynamics of these contacts are an active area of research and not yet understood. Lastly, we also know that the cell nucleus is divided up into regions with different functional profiles, through associations with the nuclear lamina or self-association of potentially phase-separated domains like the nucleolus. How this long-range organization relates to short-range chromatin folding is also an area that my lab plans to explore.
AG: What is RICC-seq and how can it accurately examine short range DNA contacts?
VR: RICC-seq stands for ionizing Radiation-Induced Correlated Cleavage. In the 1990s, it was shown that the pattern of DNA damage induced by X-rays or gamma-rays on a cell’s genome is shaped by the way the DNA is folded into chromatin. RICC-seq takes advantage of this convenient property of chromatin. We irradiate cells with X-rays or gamma rays, carefully extract the short pieces of resulting single-stranded DNA, and then sequence those pieces. Their ends tell us about the pattern of DNA damage and consequently, about the way the DNA was folded in the original cell. This method works well for mapping high-resolution DNA-DNA contacts on the order of less than 10 nm and less than a thousand base pairs, making it complementary to other three-dimensional structure mapping methods like Hi-C, which work better for contacts spanning thousands of kilobases.
AG: What makes RICC-seq novel from other sequencing techniques?
VR: RICC-seq has two unique advantages. First, it can be performed on living cells that are not fixed or permeabilized. Therefore, we can probe chromatin structure in its native state. Second, it uses hydroxyl radicals generated by radiation as its probe. The radiation can penetrate all areas of the nucleus, no matter how dense, and the radicals are smaller than water and can easily diffuse. Therefore, we can get data from not only the low-density euchromatin in the nucleus, but also from highly compacted, dense heterochromatin.
AG: What other tools are you incorporating in your lab to understand genome architecture?
VR: RICC-seq is not a single-cell method and requires quite a bit of input material, so we will be combining it with lower-input methods like single cell or bulk ATAC-seq and RNA-seq, as well new cutting-edge technologies as they emerge. We will also be complementing this work with protein binding measurements like ChIP-seq or CUT&RUN, and microscopy that can tell us about the long-range organization of the nucleus. Lastly, we will also be collaborating with chromatin engineers to develop perturbations that will help us dissect causal and functional relationships between molecular factors and chromatin structure.
AG: Are there other hobbies you have that incorporate science?
VR: I’ve long loved incorporating skills that I pick up in the lab into my other hobbies. When I learned microscopy and optics, I also took up photography in my spare time, because the basic concepts are the same. I love art in general and see a lot of parallels between the lives of scientists and artists. We are both seeking fundamental truths, and both need to continually find ways to nurture our creativity. I also love to cook. I often use it to relax because it uses many of the same skills as biochemistry or molecular biology, but you can usually determine failure or success more rapidly than at the bench, and it is also easier to share your successes with your friends.
Lastly, I love science outreach and communications, but I would not call those hobbies. I think all of us as scientists have a responsibility to share our work with the public that, after all, supports our work through taxes and donations, to advocate for the societal benefits of basic research, and to equitably educate the next generation.
New York City is known for many things—culture, nightlife, and food, to name a few. We already know about the widely recognized style of New York pizza and hot dogs. But did you know that the city is known for having the most authentic bagels? You can now get one anywhere, from a mass produced bagel in your local grocery store (generally not recommended) to many bakeries, delis, and restaurants around town, however they weren’t always so widely available. Where did bagels come from?
Various ancient cultures had some form of a bagel-like bread. There are Egyptian hieroglyphics that depict everyday people with round shaped bread with a hole in the middle. The design makes for even cooking and allows for easy transport, since many can be carried on a stick or a string. The bagel as we know it probably evolved in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, in the Middle Ages. The earliest mention of a bagel in writing was from 1610 in the “Community Regulations” of Krakow. There is a legend that they were invented in 1683 in honor of the Polish king Jan Sobieski for saving Austria from Turkish invaders, but the earlier mention casts doubt on the story.
Bagels came to this country with Eastern European immigrants in the late nineteenth century. By 1900, there were seventy bagel bakeries on the Lower East Side. In 1907 the International Beigel Bakers Union was founded, which had the effect of limiting production mostly to this city. As these immigrants assimilated and moved across the country, so too did the popularity of and demand for bagels. Murray Lender, a Polish immigrant, opened a wholesale bagel bakery in New Haven, Connecticut in 1927, one of the few outside New York at the time. A turning point came in 1956, when the Lenders bought a freezer. They soon realized they could ship frozen bagels to distant retailers without them going stale. Today bagels are common in supermarkets, but Lenders’ bagels are the only mass produced bagels that retain authenticity.
By tradition, bagels are made by letting the shaped wheat-based dough sit for twelve hours at a cool temperature, around 40˚ to 50˚ F. Then they are boiled for about a minute before they are baked. It is the boiling that gives them the sheen on the crust. True bagels have a dense chewy texture with a crust that has a slight snap when bitten. They should have absolutely no resemblance to white Wonder Bread. Some say that New York City water gives bagels a better taste. According to the Smithsonian, the ratio of calcium to magnesium in our water binds with the gluten in the dough to give the bagels the accurate degree of chewiness.
Bagels come in different flavors including onion, sesame seed, poppy seed, cinnamon raisin, pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, and egg. An “everything bagel” has some combination of these ingredients, having evolved from bakeries trying to use up all the dough they had left over. Bagels can be eaten as is or toasted, and usually topped with either butter, cream cheese (a schmear), jelly, lox, tomatoes, onions, capers, or some combination of these. Around Saint Patrick’s Day, you may see some bagels dyed green. Different cities have their own style of bagels. In Chicago bagels are not boiled but baked with steam, giving them a very soft texture. Montreal’s bagels have dough containing malt and sugar but no salt. Honey is added to the boiling water for a sweeter taste. In London, bagels are smaller with a courser texture and more air bubbles. Since there is no legal regulation, many companies produce what they call “bagels” that are very far from the real thing.
Here in New York City, there are several famous bagel places as well as many smaller neighborhood establishments. The most familiar are Zabar’s, Russ and Daughters, the Second Avenue Deli, and Ess-a-Bagel. Another well-known store, H&H Bagels, is characteristically New York in that it was founded by a Puerto Rican family. The closest source to our university is Bagelworks, on First Avenue at 66th Street. So enjoy a typical city Sunday morning tradition and pick up the New York Times and a couple of bagels with a cream cheese and spend the rest of the morning relaxing with them.
Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones
In December of 1968 The Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet just months before they would be introduced as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” The record, which features tunes by the songwriting team of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the very peak of their creativity, has a consistent, unified sound. Richards’ guitar work on Beggars ranges from nuanced and subtle to in-your-face, airplane engine electric power chords, ringing out and enveloping Jagger’s vocals in a cocoon of creative textures. Charlie Watts on drums and Bill Wyman on bass anchor all of the music with exactitude and precision. The band’s fifth member, Brian Jones, was fading away at the time of recording into an introverted state of confusion and a paranoid drugged out haze. Jones only contributed here and there, his last gasp of what he did best as a musician, putting the cherry atop the sweet sundae of the Stones’ tracks. It would be his final album as a Stone, as he was asked to leave after the record was completed so the group could bring in virtuoso guitarist Mick Taylor. Just a month after exiting the band, Jones died, drowning in his swimming pool.
Beggars Banquet was the first Stones album produced in the studio by the late Jimmy Miller. Miller would go on to work with The Stones on their finest albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Glyn Johns served as the studio engineer on Banquet and Nicky Hopkins provided piano for the band, shining on these tracks with his individual style. The late Hopkins may have been the greatest keyboardist who served as a hired hand for any major popular music band.
I was eleven years old when Beggars Banquet was released in America. My siblings and friends all knew that this record was something special, appearing a year after The Beatles released their genius LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nothing on Beggars was similar to Pepper’s. The compositions penned by Jagger and Richards remained rooted in the chord structures of traditional blues and also continued the Stones’ extrapolations on Chuck Berry’s “1-4-5” structure of early rock and roll composition, a pattern also derived from the blues. Lennon and McCartney’s songs on Pepper’s dazzle in experimental melodic complexity amid George Martin’s nuanced production. Martin and The Beatles would selectively celebrate their tracks with orchestral strings and woodwinds when the moment called for it. In contrast, the Stones stayed minimalistic on their records and could easily move from studio to stage with their tunes centered around two guitars, bass, drums, and piano, with small horns thrown in at times for variety.
Beggars kicks off with the infamous “Sympathy for the Devil” which was viewed in 1968 as reflective of the Stones’ image of danger and dark mystery. Even in my youth, however, I was intrigued by the serious nature of the lyrics and how deeply poetic they were in contrast to a lot of throw-away songs at the time. As Jagger steps into the guise of Lucifer, he’s more Oscar Wilde’s horrific gentleman Dorian Gray than a horror flick notion of the Devil. The character takes the listener on a tour of mankind’s violent history and sings with intensity as he describes his role both as observer and bloody instigator. The song’s exotic descriptions include gems such as “I lay traps for troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay” and “I watched in glee as you kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made,” which may be the only reference in pop and rock music to The Hundred Years’ War. Lucifer is a “beggar” who demands sympathy for what he’s watched us do and what he has had to endure. Yet he also threatens that “if you meet me have some courtesy, have some sympathy, have some taste; use all your well-learned politeness, or I’ll lay your soul to waste.”
Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave director, filmed the Stones recording “Sympathy” and put some of the footage in his movie “Sympathy for the Devil.” I find that movie ridiculous and unwatchable and wish someone would extract the footage of the band, add moments that didn’t make the final cut, and release it on its own (note that director Peter Jackson is currently taking the best parts of footage of The Beatles’ mess of a 1970 documentary “Let It Be” and adding many new scenes of them playing that were left on the cutting room floor). Godard captures how the band began with Mick Jagger strumming “Sympathy” on a guitar and how after some standard arrangements, the piece shifts to the heavy percussive Latin background sound, which is heard on the album. The congas and drums conjure the devil like Shakespeare’s witches brewing evil tidings from a boiling kettle. The song builds to a frenzy and fades away with the singer’s echoing falsetto cries as Lucifer spirals downwards to hell—the band plays furiously amid Richard’s sharp lead guitar work knifing through the mix. Lyrically, the words have more in common with England’s grand poetic tradition than the good vibrations and flower power anthems spilling out on the radio at the time. If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize in literature for his groundbreaking lyrics, Jagger and Richards surely qualify as Britain’s Poet Laureates.
Beggars has fabulous moments of acoustic guitar-centered songs. After “Sympathy” fades out, the next tune is “No Expectations,” a Jagger and Richards song that mirrors the classic “Love in Vain” by American bluesman Robert Johnson. The Stones would record “Love in Vain” for their next album, Let it Bleed and while Johnson’s tune is about unrequited love and features images of trains leaving the station with one’s lost lover, the narrator of “No Expectations” is broken-hearted and requests in the opening lines, “Take me the station and put me on a train, I’ve got no expectation to pass through here again” and ends with a similar plea to be sent off far away in an airplane. The song’s narrator describes the fleeting nature of the love he’s lost, “like the water, splashing on a stone” and notes, “Our love is like our music—it is here and then it’s gone.” Brian Jones plays a wicked slide acoustic guitar, which resolves on an “open” E chord that Keith Richards must have been awed by, even through his anger with Jones’ continual drugged out confusion.
The best acoustic performance on Beggars is, “Prodigal Son,” written by Robert Wilkins, a reverend who recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m not certain how old I was when I realized that the story of the song is Biblical, the famous tale of the arrogant youth who leaves home to find the world a harsh, punishing place and later crawling back to his father for forgiveness. Jagger singing affects a Southern, African-American spiritualist tone and Richards’ acoustic chords and lead flourishes are passionate and heartfelt. After Jagger’s last line, “My son was lost but now he is found” you can hear Richards give a guttural cry of “Hey!” as he brings it on home. One may venture that Mick and Keith would be absolutely content each day to sit on a porch in Mississippi in the summer sun, playing guitars and singing songs while swigging moonshine from a jug.
The rock songs on Beggars are fantastic, especially “Parachute Woman” and “Stray Cat Blues.” “Stray Cat Blues” in particular is an example of the Stones’ swaggering sexuality. When I was teaching myself guitar as a teenager, I would tune up to Beggars to play along with the album, and the rhythmic intensity of “Parachute Woman” was difficult to master. When I finally got it down, it was almost as if the guitar took over in the song for itself, and the intensity of the trancing repeating riffs brought me to a plane of surprising joy and newfound release. I could never truly master Keith’s leading stabs in “Stray Cat Blues” but Jimmy Page would give them homage on Led Zeppelin’s final album, “In Through the Out Door”.
The greatest masterpiece song on Beggars is “Street Fighting Man.” It is a slice of English history in living color, summing up the frustration of being a young man with energy and new ideas in 1960s London. It speaks of revolution, revelation, rebellion, and resignation all in one set of lyrics. Even if youth should run rampant through the city streets and “kill the King” they will ultimately be reduced to nothing more than bit players in a culturally limited rock and roll band. The sound of “Street Fighting Man” is the most complex in terms of instrumentation on Beggars. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards recorded their initial drums and acoustic guitars on a cassette recorder and Jimmy Miller manipulated that sound to abstract perfection. Additional guitars, percussion, and piano were added later and Brian Jones contributed well-placed drones on a sitar. Jaggers’ vocals are menacing, multi-tracked, and startlingly direct. I’ve listened to the song for fifty years and it is fresh on each hearing.
Beggars closes out with a beautiful song “Salt of the Earth,” an ode to the working class men and women of Great Britain. At the same time, in the song’s middle break Jagger admits that while on stage performing, the crowd is nothing but a “swirling mass of grays and blacks and whites” that don’t seem real to him and are actually “strange” in his eyes. The song hits a galloping peak and they give pianist Nicky Hopkins the honor of having it fade out to his manic right hand banging out a set of rapid chords.
The album’s release was delayed in 1968 because the record companies in America and Britain balked at the LP’s cover art of a dirty public bathroom with graffiti about the Stones and the songs on Beggars. It was eventually released with a white cover and a mock invitation to the banquet. The inner sleeve, however, boasts a black and white photo with shades of muted colors of the Stones celebrating like peasants who have invaded the King’s table in the Dark Ages. It may be the greatest match of image and personality in a band in the history of rock music, a fitting idea for an incredible piece of music.
In this issue, Natural Selections interviews Muffin and Velvet, the cats who live with Sarah Mereby (Fuchs Lab, The Rockefeller University) and Eddie Spencer. I wasn’t able to meet these lovely creatures but Sarah graciously transmitted my questions to them and their answers to me. Please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have pets!
Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?
Velvet: We are 21 years old and 1.5 years old in human years.
PV: Is there a story behind your names?
V: I was named by the people that work at the shelter that I am from. It is very fitting since my coat is very soft and sleek.
Muffin: I was named by my hoomans. They told me I am super cute and small like a muffin. I’m not so small anymore though.
PV: What is your first memory?
M: My first memory was waking up to find I had been put in a mailbox in the middle of winter. I was so scared! Thankfully I was rescued by the local shelter, which led to me meeting my hoomans. Meeting my hoomans is my favorite memory.
V: My first memory was meeting Muffin at the shelter. The shelter told me that I was the only survivor of all my siblings. Muffin has been my friend and a part of my family ever since.
PV: Which humans do you live with? When did you meet them?
V: We live with Sarah Mereby and Eddie Spencer. We met them at the shelter in January 2018.
PV: How do they belong in the Tri-I community?
M: Sarah is a Research Specialist at The Rockefeller University.
PV: Where do you live?
V: We live in Montclair, NJ. We just moved from Lyndhurst, NJ. We love our new house. We got to learn how to go up and down stairs and there are so many new places for us to hide. Also there are plenty of birds and squirrels to watch from the window.
PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
V: I would live wherever my hoomans and Muffin would live.
M: I would live in a restaurant since I love to eat and would help eat any leftovers.
PV: What are your favorite foods?
M: I love to eat canned cat food. I do not have a favorite flavor. I eat so quickly that I can’t even remember what flavor I had or whether I had a full bowl to begin with. I also love to try to eat Velvet’s portion. Never know if Velvet had a better flavor or was given more food than me.
V: I love Friskies Shreds. My favorite flavor is salmon. I am very picky and have taught my hoomans to only give my shreds and not pate. Ew. I also like treats: Ahi Tuna flavor! I also like to drink water out of hooman’s glass. It always tastes best when it’s nice and cold. Sharing with hooman is the best. Although I don’t know why they get mad at me when I take a small lick of their water.
PV: What is your favorite weekend activity?
V: We like to hang out with our hoomans on the weekends. That’s the best. We normally like to watch TV with hoomans and sit in our cat tree while looking out the window. We also like to play with hooman. We love our feather toys.
M: I like to snuggle with Eddie.
V: I like to follow hoomans everywhere around the house to make sure to help them if they need my assistance.
PV: Besides your human roomie, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?
V: I have met Stephanie who works at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I love making new friends.
M: I can’t remember. I am a bit afraid of meeting new people.
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
V: One time hoomans brought home a cat stuffed animal that is about the same size as us. We were so convinced it was real. It was very scary. We both approached it very slowly and pawed at it. We were worried we were being replaced by a new cat. Thankfully it’s just a decoration. It wishes it could be like us.
PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?
V: You can follow us on the Instagram account @catasticday or use the hashtag #muffinandvelvet.
PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?
M: Being able to open cans of cat food. That’s the dream.
V: Being able to play the piano. I love when hoomans play piano. It’s very relaxing. I’ve attempted to play the piano myself by jumping on the piano keys but it doesn’t sound as good as when hooman plays.
Megan Elizabeth Kelley (Twitter @MeganEKelley)
Photos by Megan Elizabeth Kelley.
On the Northern coast of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in Iceland, there is a horse farm nestled between the water and the mountains where I stayed for a few nights. As is typical for winter in Iceland, the wind howled, rain alternated with snow, and clouds often obscured the stars, but for a few hours one night the skies opened up and unveiled the Aurora Borealis. At times, swirling light shimmered overhead like idle tracings, while at other times there seemed to be a green spotlight blazing across the sky. The wind and rain continued to blow in from the side—I realized that I was still in my pajamas and they were stacking up poorly against the elements, but the awe-inspiring sight of the aurora kept me outside for hours. I was grateful when the clouds eventually rolled in over the mountains, as I needed sleep and could not have otherwise torn myself away from such a sight.
The Natural Selections Editorial Board in front of the new President’s Office and Dean’s Office building.
Excitement abounds at The Rockefeller University as we prepare for the grand opening of the new $500 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation—David Rockefeller River Campus, a four-year construction project to add two acres and a new research building to Rockefeller’s fourteen-acre campus. Construction began during the summer of 2015, right when I arrived at Rockefeller as a first year graduate student. Since then, I have gotten a chance to follow the progress of the new building, mainly through glimpses of the roof from my lab’s conference room in the Hospital Building, whilst crossing the Queensboro bridge, or from viewing the outside of the building from the esplanade. But these piecemeal looks never gave me a real understanding of the full scale of the project. In early February, Alex Kogan, Associate Vice President of Plant Operations and Housing at Rockefeller, agreed to give the Natural Selections Editorial Board a tour of the building, where we got a more comprehensive idea of what a massive undertaking this project has been.
If you walk anywhere on Rockefeller’s campus, it is easy to miss the massive river building completely (barring the constant construction that has been taking place for the past couple of years). In fact, the architects designed it this way in order for it to blend into the preexisting campus. Limited to the space between the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and York Avenue between 62nd Street and 68th Street, the university had to take a highly creative approach to expand the campus. The university was able to take advantage of the air rights over the FDR that it has owned since 1973 to expand into a long horizontal structure over the highway. In the summer of 2016, nineteen modular metal structures were installed from the East River using a marine crane to lift them over the FDR onto columns that had previously been built. The FDR was closed nineteen nights that summer as the modules were transported on a barge from New Jersey and lifted one-by-one into place.
Over the past couple of weeks, equipment and scaffolding blocking views of the new walkways to the River Campus have been cleared, showing off the beautiful staircases and many entrances to the new building. Take one of the two new outdoor staircases between Founder’s Hall and the Nurses Residence, or between Founder’s Hall and Smith Hall, and you will find yourself on the top of the new Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Research Building where there are two acres of open space containing a beautiful garden with many benches, an amphitheater of seats facing inward towards Welch Hall, and a lovely unobstructed view of the East River. The garden is strikingly devoid of noise from the FDR and looks to be the perfect place to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July or to hang out on a nice day. On the south side of the green space is the new cafeteria, which will replace Weiss Café. With state-of-the-art kitchen equipment and a full glass window looking out at the river, the dining services staff are eager to move into the new space and away from the undesirable conditions in Weiss, where the kitchen is far removed from the cafeteria. There is plenty of seating in a large open room adjacent to the cafeteria and I can see this becoming a big hang-out spot on campus. On the other side of the roof, as you walk north along the river atop the Kravis Research Building, are the President’s and Dean’s Offices with two large conference rooms that will be available for reservation by campus members as needed.
The Kravis Research Building below aims to provide Rockefeller scientists with a cutting edge research facility, and will replace many existing labs on campus that have desperately needed an upgrade in the modern bioscience world. Spanning three New York City blocks, the building has rows and rows of benches, tissue culture rooms, and chemical hoods. By the windows sit individual desk spaces for all researchers that will ultimately be separated from the main lab spaces by a glass panel, which will allow scientists to enjoy a coffee or snack at their desk. All Head of Lab offices are exactly the same size, meaning nobody has a bigger office than anyone else. All of the lab spaces are designed to be completely flexible, making it easy to adjust where benches and equipment will be set-up and allow for a space tailored to the unique needs of each group of scientists. There are four main wings of the building, each to be shared by six labs, which include north and south wings on each of the two floors of the building. The quadrants each share a common conference room and kitchen. All faculty were offered a chance to move to the new building, and so far eighteen labs will be moving into the new space, with the first labs set to move in March. No lab was given preference to particular locations in the building, but they have tried to put labs that collaborate closely near one another. I cannot help but be envious of the labs that received corner spaces with large windows—these seem like the perfect locale for bouts of deep pondering whilst doing science.
In the middle of each floor are two common spaces where there will be plenty of seating to meet for coffee or get away from the lab. There is also another large common kitchen that will be open to all of the labs on the floor. The bottom floor also has a lactation room for breastfeeding mothers. Bathrooms have been put in in the center of each floor as well, meaning everyone working in the building will be converging in the middle of the building at least a couple of times a day. The whole design of the building is open, which the architects hope will foster more cross-talk between people from different labs. In fact, I think it is going to be difficult to distinguish where one lab ends and the other begins.
At the end of the north side of the building, in front of the President’s House, will be a new large lawn that will serve as a backyard, and further, past the lawn by the 68th Street gate is a new conference center. This conference center will be open to Rockefeller labs and rentable by members of the public in order to generate some revenue for the university. With full glass windows facing the river, I think it will be highly desirable for meetings. It is completely separate from the rest of campus (meaning you will have to walk outside to get to it) and was designed to be sort of a retreat space to get away from the main interconnected research buildings. It will be accessible by the 68th Street turnstile, which will reopen soon, after having been closed for the past couple of years.
Campus has been under construction for four years now and I can fully say that it has been worth the wait. Although my lab is not moving to the new building, I will definitely be spending a lot of time there enjoying the gorgeous architecture, relaxing in the open space over coffee and lunch, and strolling in the lovely gardens above. The beautiful and highly innovative design of the expansion will be a refreshing addition to campus—the official opening cannot come soon enough! You can follow installed cameras with time-lapse views of the new building here.
Alex Kogan excitedly discusses the expansion of Rockefeller and the construction of the new river campus.
View of the new amphitheater facing Welch Hall from the green space above the research building.
The finishing touches are being put on the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Research Building, which must be prepared for the move of eighteen Rockefeller labs starting in March.
All photos courtesy of Megan Elizabeth Kelley. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEKelley.
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Stephen Kurkjian discusses the Gardner Museum Theft and the Podcast “Last Seen”
Stephen Kurkjian (photo courtesy of Mr. Kurkjian)
Courtyard of the Gardner Museum in Boston (photo: Bernie Langs)
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt, stolen in 1990 from the Gardner Museum (photo: Wikipedia)
At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as policemen gained access to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with thirteen pieces of art, now valued at $500 million. The stolen works included Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentlemen in Black, Vermeer’s The Concert, and Manet’s Chez Tortoni. Not one piece grabbed that night has been located despite the offer of millions in reward money for any credible information leading to the recovery of the paintings.
In 2018, The Boston Globe and Boston’s public radio station, WBUR, teamed up to create an investigative crime podcast about the theft. “Last Seen” is a fascinating dive into how the heist was pulled off and follows up on many potential leads about where these masterpieces may now be stashed and who may have been behind the heist. “Last Seen” boasts riveting audio of interviews and discussions with many of the key players surrounding the crime. The podcast audience also listens in on conversations with mob figures made by agents wearing wires, including those made by the FBI’s longtime art-crimes investigator, Bob Wittman. The search veers off in a multitude of directions as ideas are revealed and tested, mixing intense drama with unexpected moments of emotion and humor.
I reached out to The Boston Globe for comments about “Last Seen” and they directed me to Stephen Kurkjian, a retired Globe reporter and one of the show’s co-producers and lead investigators. A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Kurkjian is the author of the book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, which continues his investigation into the Gardner theft. After a quick chat on the phone, I emailed Mr. Kurkjian questions about “Last Seen” and his involvement in the case.
Bernie Langs: The final episode of “Last Seen” is a panel discussion with you and others who worked on the production and reporting. You discussed your personal history as a Boston native, the son of an Armenian immigrant who became a commercial artist and taught you about the value of Boston’s cultural treasures. You explain, “…this is the artwork of the ages. Everything passes. Art endures. And this is our art. Mrs. Gardner put those on the wall for us, put them on the wall for my father.” Can you elaborate further about your obsession with recovering the art?
Stephen Kurkjian: I don’t see myself as “obsessed” by the Gardner story as much as I do doing what any investigative reporter would do—following a compelling story that has great meaning and purpose to their city. As an investigative reporter, especially one who grew up in Boston, I am drawn to stories that have “purpose” for the community. Mrs. Gardner had assembled this extraordinary collection for a transcendent reason—to motivate all Americans to be inspired by artistic achievement. She understood, having traveled the world over, that the civilizations that survived in time were not those that had the strongest military or economic might but those that valued art, be it paintings, statuary, tapestry, music, etc. While America was becoming a world power during the Industrial Revolution, she did not see us gaining an appreciation for art and she wanted to do something about it. That is why when she opened the museum she insisted that attendance be free of charge—except for a donation, if possible—and she encouraged local schools to send class after class to the museum so youngsters could be inspired by her art. On the personal side, my father, Anooshavan Kurkjian, a refugee from the Armenian Genocide, was one of countless art students who visited the museum daily so he could study the techniques of the artists. And though he was proud of the results of my investigative reporting in other areas, he was especially pleased when I turned my sights to the Gardner case. “You have to stir the conscience of the community for it to understand the fullness of what was lost here,” he stressed.
BL: The podcast covers how you and others follow-up each credible lead. The Boston FBI refused to speak on the record in reply to your queries. One can’t help but speculate about why they repeatedly dropped the ball in this case, effectively ruining some of the undercover efforts and remaining secretive when they should have mobilized the city’s residents to assist in identifying suspects. Is it possible that the FBI killed leads about the theft for nefarious or duplicitous reasons?
SK: Following this story is difficult enough and I’ve sought to avoid chasing conspiracy theories. That being said, it is also true that the FBI has not covered itself with glory in pursuing the case. Yes, the agents assigned to the case have done so with diligence, but my complaint is that the agency has failed to act creatively in its investigation. They have restricted other agencies, especially the Massachusetts State Police and Boston Police, from playing a leadership role on the case. That was regrettable, especially at the start of the investigation, as these other agencies would have had valuable sources and resources to put to the effort. Why? Likely because the agency didn’t want to jeopardize its confidential intelligence to these other agencies in fear leaks might happen. Also, I think at the outset the FBI believed that the case would be solved quickly—either through an arrest or an exchange that gained the arts’ recovery. And the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office didn’t want to share the glory that would come from such a recovery with any lesser agencies.
While it may not point to a conspiracy, I remain intrigued as to how the FBI could have muffed the investigation at several key points. Why not focus on [museum guard] Abath more widely and intensively at the probe’s outset? More recently, why release a tape in August 2015 that seemed intent on finding the identity of a stranger who was allowed into the museum the night before the theft, and disregard the outreach of several former staffers who willingly told me that it was not a suspicious entry at all and identified him as the former security deputy director? How did the FBI misplace key forensic evidence taken from the scene of the crime that was not available decades later when officials wanted to do advanced DNA testing on the material? But my sense is that taken together these amount not to a conspiracy to impair the investigation rather than a lack of expert and strategic thinking about how to advance it.
BL: “Last Seen” grabs the audience from the very first episodes. When you tracked down the guard, Rick Abath, living in a shack in Vermont, was that an important find for you, when you discussed the suspicion that he may have been the “inside man” in the theft?
SK: I did that interview with Abath, and taped it, for a profile I was doing on him for The Boston Globe, not the podcast. He was willing to speak—for the first time, on the record—as he was thinking then of coming forward with a book on his involvement with the case. But I had interviewed him many times in the years before that, since 2005 in fact, when I originally found him living in Vermont. I had spent the entire day trying to find his whereabouts in that city, and when I finally found his house, a tiny cabin on a remote hillside, only the moonlight led me to his front door. Interestingly, he wouldn’t let me in but agreed to an interview in a city tavern. That was an exciting interview, as for the first time I was learning details of the theft that the FBI and the museum had never made public.
Included in it was how Abath acknowledged his two grievous errors in letting the thieves into the museum. He thought some kids drunk from the St. Patrick’s Day celebration had jumped the iron fence behind the museum and were possibly causing damage to the Gardner’s rear premises…he fell for the thieves’ ruse…he feared he’d be arrested and miss the Grateful Dead concert that he had a ticket for in Hartford later that night. But he was convincing in his assertions of innocence, that he was not part of any robbery scheme, nor could he recall ever giving security secrets to any gangster-types who could have used them to pull off the heist. I have detailed other reasons that raise suspicions about Abath’s actions that night in my book, Master Thieves, but the FBI has never had enough to arrest him for involvement in the crime.
BL: My own theory about the theft had always been that it was financed by an eccentric collector utilizing mobsters to grab the art for his private collection. “Last Seen” destroys the wealthy villain mastermind idea making it clear that this was a well-planned theft by seasoned criminals. Can you explain why you know that this is the scenario that makes the most sense?
SK: No one “knows” anything about this robbery. No one knows for sure who did it, how they conspired to do it, or what happened to any of the art work. My thinking is all informed by hard reporting and deductive reasoning built off that reporting. If the theft had been engineered by a “Dr. No”-type criminal, an oligarch-type or arch criminal, who commissioned the robbery in hopes of gaining a beloved masterpiece, then I doubt that the thieves would have been so rough in how they treated the works they stole. Remember, all paintings were broken out of their frames, and the two large Rembrandts were cut out of their backings. I’m thinking the mastermind who may have commissioned the theft would have been very upset by such treatment. Also, with thirteen pieces being stolen, you would think that if they had been divided up, that someone would step forward or screw up so that the authorities would get a trail to a recovery.
But the feds told me in 2010 that the FBI had not had a single “proof of life sighting” of any of the thirteen pieces, which in FBI lingo means that there had not been a photo taken of the pieces showing their whereabouts since the theft or a single piece of forensic evidence, which would show that a person could back up their claim that they had access to or knowledge of the whereabouts of the stolen pieces. Which leads me to the belief that the pieces were stolen as a potential “get out of jail free” card for someone already in jail or someone who was facing a prison term. In the last chapter of Master Thieves, I tell the tale of just such a person, a mob leader who had been jailed four months before the Gardner heist, and the person who pledged to help get him out of jail.
BL: You have won Pulitzer Prizes, worked on investigations with The Globe and their famous Spotlight team. You have written about everything from the clergy abuse scandal inside the Boston Archdiocese to political scandals in Washington. Master Thieves continues your investigation into the Gardner heist. You retired in 2007, yet here you are still trying to recover those paintings.
SK: I was a founding member of The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team. It was commissioned in the early 1970s to work on stories that had purpose to Boston and New England, and its three Pulitzer Prizes, 1972, 1980, and 2003, are evidence to the success of focusing on such stories. I regard the Gardner as a similar story and backed up by my personal ties to the museum via my father and my cousins, both of whom were classical pianists who often performed at the museum. Because of those ties, I have come up with an alternative approach to gaining a recovery—a full-fledged public appeal, which would be powered by social media. I remember what attention the “Ice Bucket Challenge” gained in the summer of 2014 to ALS research. I think a similar drive should be established to bring the public attention and energies towards a recovery. Such an appeal would include outreach to all segments of society both those law-abiding and criminal. The message should be that these masterpieces were put on the museum’s walls for all Bostonians, rich and poor, and that they remain missing (hidden somewhere!) serves no purpose. My sense is that no one knows where the artwork was hidden, and the two thieves and their boss who did know the whereabouts are now dead, as the FBI confirms. But there are still people alive who know or have suspicions about who did it, and what they may have done with the artwork. But those people are unlikely to say something because to do say is breaking some mob code of “omerta,” and to bring forward such information would be considered “ratting.” The conscience of these people has to be engaged and they have to be reminded that many of history’s greatest artists, including Van Gogh and Michelangelo, came from impoverished backgrounds like they and their families. Perhaps their grandchildren could be inspired by one of those masterpieces to become an artist but they need to be back on the museum gallery’s walls. They are doing no good being hidden away. It is time that they be returned. Regrettably, neither the FBI nor the museum has seen fit to advocate for the social media campaign.
Please visit Mr. Kurkjian’s Web site for additional background on his fantastic career: http://stephenkurkjian.com/. To reach Mr. Kurkjian regarding his work on the Gardner theft, email email@example.com.
In the third run of this series, I interview Mocha, the rabbit who lives with Natalie Omattage (Chen Lab, The Rockefeller University). I meet this fluffy one often, as Natalie and I share an apartment. If you would like your pet(s) featured in this series, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pooja Viswanathan: Mocha, I have never met a bunny like you before. What kind of bunny are you?
Mocha: I am a Lionhead bunny. We are named for the mane of fur around our heads! Lionheads are majestic creatures (I may be biased), and we are known for our sassy personalities. Some say I take after my mom, but I’d like to think we are just strong independent women!
PV: Is there a story behind your name?
M: I was originally named Ladybug but I didn’t think it suited me very well. Mom is a big coffee drinker and was inspired by my mocha brown hair!
PV: How old are you? In human years?
M: I’m seven years old—some say that’s about forty-nine in human years, but I still feel pretty young and spry! I was born in 2012, coincidentally, the same year my mom began grad school! I think that’s how I knew we were meant to be together.
PV: What is your first memory?
M: Sadly, one of my first memories was being abandoned in the middle of an alley during a rainstorm. I still get scared during storms to this day. Fortunately, the friendly folks at the Missouri House Rabbit Society (MO HRS) came to my rescue and gave me a warm safe place to sleep and spend time with other bunnies!
PV: Tell us about your mom. When did you first meet her?
M: My mom’s name is Natalie Omattage. We met in April 2014. She had just passed her qualifying exam at Washington University in St. Louis and wanted a furrever friend. I had spent nearly two years at the MO HRS and was very picky about who I wanted to be my next family. As she walked around, we locked eyes, and the rest, as they say, is history. Below is photographic evidence of us meeting for the first time.
PV: How does your mom belong in the Tri-I community?
M: She’s a postdoc in Dr. Jue Chen’s lab at Rockefeller. We made the trek from the Midwest to the Big Apple in September, and haven’t looked back since. I’m definitely a big city bun!
PV: Where do you live?
M: I live with my mom in her room. My cage is a large dog crate, and I also have a wooden bunny castle so I can keep watch over my territory! I’m allowed to wander around the room so long as I don’t chew on Mom’s belongings. I like to test my luck occasionally but Mom says I’m too cute to stay mad at for too long. 😉
PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
M: I think I’d want to live in Sri Lanka. All of mom’s family lives there, and I could see myself being a beach bun and living that tropical life!
PV: What is your favorite food?
M: Sticking to the Bugs Bunny stereotype, I really do love carrots! Although, they are high in sugar so I’m not allowed to have very much. My other favorite foods are bok choy and brussel sprouts.
PV: What is your favorite weekend activity?
M: I like to splay out in my cage and relax after a long week of nibbling on hay and playing with my toys. I miss Mom a lot during the work week so I often face her direction when I’m resting. I also like lots of scratches and snuggles when she’s around!
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
M: My mom’s partner once took care of me when she was out of town. When we are really happy we binkie, or jump in the air while twisting our body and heads in the opposite direction. It was my first time running around freely on carpet so I binkied the whole time I was staying with him! He had no clue what was happening and thought he had “broken” me and was too scared to tell my mom. When he finally told her what had happened we both had a good chuckle!
Jacques Cœur Palace
Bourges is located in the middle of France, where Jacques Cœur was born at the end of the fourteenth century. Among other duties, he was a merchant in charge of trading goods between his country and the Levant under King Charles VII.
Although he never lived there, Cœur ordered the construction in Bourges of an avant-garde gothic-style imposing hôtel particulier (now called palace). He chose scallop shells and hearts (in French: “Saint-Jacques” and “Coeur”) as heraldry, which can be seen at many places on and in the edifice. His motto “A vaillans cuers riens impossible” means “To a valiant heart, nothing is impossible.”
Jacques Cœur’s story has been novelized by a French author, Jean-Christophe Rufin, a Bourges native himself.
On Friday, March 1, James Browning, a postdoctoral research associate in the Krueger Laboratory, will be performing at an indie rock show under the stage name Blackwing at Gussy’s Bar in Astoria, Queens (20-14 29th Street). Blackwing will be opening for the Spanish Power Pop group, Compañía de Sueños Ilimitada. Doors are at 7 p.m. and admission is $10. More information about the show can be found online.
Daniel Gareau of the Krueger Laboratory will be playing a rock show with Doors tribute band, The Lizard Kings, on Thursday, March 7. The show will be held downtown at The Red Lion (151 Bleecker Street) from 9:30-10:30 p.m. and admission is $10. Check out The Lizard Kings online for more information.
On Saturday, March 9 at 7 p.m., Lance Langston of the O’Donnell Laboratory and Alison North of The Rockefeller University Bio-Imaging Resource Center will be performing “The Tudors: Music of the English Reformation” at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church (552 West End Avenue) with the Central City Chorus. This event features “Mass for Five Voices” by William Byrd, as well as the music of John Tavener, John Sheppard, Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Tomkins, and others. Tickets and information can be found online at the Central City Chorus website.
This month, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release of the animated music video “I Am Not the One,” created by GECCOVIZION with original music by Bernie Langs. The video can be viewed on Bernie Langs’ YouTube page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
David Bowie’s music always showcased complex arrangements, alongside lyrics reflecting the turmoil of our world. To learn more about Bowie and his music, I contacted musicians and producers who had worked with him during his productive recording and touring years (2002-2004) hoping to land an interview.
Guitarist Gerry Leonard, who worked with Bowie at that time, amiably agreed to speak with me. Leonard appears in YouTube videos of several of Bowie’s tours and in documentary movies about Bowie’s late career.
Leonard hails from Dublin and studied classical guitar at the Municipal College of Music. He became interested in the harmonic possibilities of the electric guitar and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of equipment for creating original ambient sounds using complex machinery. His solo career centers on his work with his band, Spooky Ghost. Leonard recently toured with rock artist Suzanne Vega and with Rufus Wainwright. He has also worked with performers such as Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, and Avril Lavigne.
Leonard’s work with David Bowie is featured on the albums Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day, lending ambient space that gels seamlessly with Bowie’s musical vision. His guitar sound allowed Bowie to expand and perfect his musical statements. Leonard also acted as Musical Director for Bowie’s Reality tour.
Gerry Leonard (r.) and Gale Ann Dorsey (center) with David Bowie. All photos courtesy of Spooky Ghost: The Official site of Gerry Leonard https://gerryleonardspookyghost.com.
I interviewed Leonard on the phone and met him briefly in December. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Bernie Langs: Artists such as U2 and Sinead O’Connor continue to reflect traditions of Irish music. Your work with “Bowsie” and Susan McKeown reflects that. Do you approach this as a responsibility, a need to continue this tradition?
Gerry Leonard: It is in a sense [a responsibility]. Music and writing and literature, poetry, all of those things have very rich traditions in Ireland because Ireland was essentially a pretty poor peasant country—all of the entertainment and all of the stories in the late night get-togethers with people making their own entertainment, and making it their own, passing on their own heritage, through story and songs. That’s very much alive in the arts culture and always has been. And I think you see that with Sinead O’Connor and U2—we all come from the same water in a sense that the stuff was around.
However, when I started picking up the guitar, I was really interested in [the British TV music show] Top of the Pops. We’d watch the bands and then I’d get together with my friends—we had a little band, and then we’d try and work out these songs. We then got into a little bit of progressive rock and then punk rock and new wave hit for me in the mid-late ‘70s. And it was such a profound shift in terms of the role of the guitar in music, the type of bands.
I’ve always had a huge respect for the Irish traditional music. Susan McKeown, in regard to the “Bowsie” project, she came to me and I was already doing my more ambient, guitar-scape kind of music, and we had this idea to take some of these traditional Irish songs that she had learned in an oral tradition. She’d gone and traveled and met the person and they taught her the song. She visited people and learned the song from somebody, which is the way it needs to be done.
BL: You’re known for your ambient sound and guitar loops and creating that kind of atmosphere. What drew you to that?
GL: I really love music and it’s always resonated with me on a deep level. Emotionally, I love listening to music and playing music and the raw power of rock and roll. But I also love more complicated things [including] some of the modern classical composers. I really like what [recording artist/record producer] Brian Eno does for instance, with space. I’ve always taught that through the use of some basic guitar pedal ideas, like echo, reverb, and distortion, you can start to change the harmonic characteristics of the sound and the length of the sound. Cathedrals, for instance, you go in there and you play a note and it does all that reverberation. Something changes in the sound and it becomes enriched by its surroundings.
When I play in an ambient way, I really recreate those kinds of atmospheres. It’s an environment, a flavor, and a color. When I teach, everybody’s focusing on the pedal and so forth, but there are many variations on the machines that do those things in different ways and some in really beautiful complex ways, but what goes in is important too, and that’s for the harmony and the music and the musical idea. I practice two things: like the way an athlete would practice, it’s a muscular thing, being in touch with your instrument, and then I practice harmonically, trying to understand the different keys, different voicings, and be more fluent in those things. Or in the studio, I can quickly analyze the harmonic sense of the song and where I see these shapes and colors in the song I can try and accentuate those with the ambient thing or with a line that’s got a certain tonal quality to it, which brings more color to the picture of all the elements that are really important.
If you think about a quality of a David Bowie song, for instance, he always had a kickass rhythm section and he always loved guitar and stuff, but there’s also room for a coloration or something a little more extreme in there and he enjoyed that boldness. Getting to play with David was a great culmination of a lot of those things for me. I think of recording as a snapshot, and it can be very static, but it can also be really interesting and mysterious. That is when it gets interesting to me, when you get this kind of lightning in a bottle where you’re getting something extra. It’s a constant quest.
BL: It’s amazing that Bowie recognized that he could use your technique for his work.
GL: It really was. Part of being in New York was about establishing a foothold for yourself. I’d been playing whenever possible, just learning my craft, and using New York as a filter to figure out what’s your strength, what’s not your strength, especially in regard to ambient guitar, figuring out a way to make it happen in the room live. I’d been working on all those things and then the call came through from my friend Mark Plati. Mark was working with David and asked me to do a track, and one thing led to another.
It was a very, very proud moment to get the call from David to be involved with him. He’s such an icon, and as a guitar player, it’s such a great legacy to be involved in, to be one of the guitar players. Even if it was in his later career, just to be able to play all that stuff with the guy who was there and wrote it. And he was a great inspiration to be around playing that stuff. It brought such a level of authenticity to it, and his very being—being around David you got that guru-like quality about him. It was tremendously exciting and a great honor, and it’s one of those ones where you really have to pinch yourself and go, “did this really happen?”
BL: When you were with Bowie, was there always an awareness of who he was?
GL: I realized quickly that when you’re with David, people start seeking you out with [ulterior] motives. You’re sitting in a hotel lobby waiting, and somebody comes up and goes, “Hey Gerry, do you want something to drink?” And I’m like, “Who is this person?” So you realize you kind of have to put up a wall around that because people want to get to David because he really is that person—he’s a rock star, but he’s touched so many people and changed so many people’s lives, and people have this real adulation for him.
The nice thing about working with David is he never wanted that; he didn’t want anybody sucking up to him. He wanted to be able to just be himself and he wanted you to be yourself. So that was always nice and refreshing to be around. But you have to put up a little bit of a wall around him because people, they changed their nature towards you.
BL: When you were with him alone or with him and the band, could you ever let go of who he was?
GL: Yeah, we did—I think we did. We had a lot of laughs. He was very good at kind of breaking that stuff down. You would get to a place where you were not self-conscious and that’s what you want. You want the truth in yourself and in your nature and in the way you responded to things, and you don’t want to be a deer in the headlights and freeze up. He wants you there to be part of a creative solution. We would pretty quickly, especially when we were working on music, get to a place where it was very relaxed. I’d been with him in social situations, too, and when we were together it would be really easy. Sometimes we’d go out to an art museum or something, and people would sidle up to me and go, “Is that David Bowie?” and I’m like, “Yes, it is, but you probably should just leave him alone. Because he’s there and just wants to look at the art.”
BL: I’ve watched videos of you discussing how “Loving the Alien” came to be performed with just you and Bowie. How did you feel alone, just you two, performing that song onstage?
GL: I literally got a call on a Tuesday. It was very David, where he’d obviously come up with this idea where he was like, “I want to do this song, I want to do a stripped-down version of it,” and he called me and told me, “Rehearsals are on Friday, are you up for it?” And I was like, “Yes, of course, I’m up for it,” and I remember putting down the phone and going to listen to the song and having that moment of panic, “What do we do here?” I worked on it and came up with that little [guitar loop] line, changed the key, and worked out a version on the guitar. When I got there on Friday, we did a couple of songs [in rehearsal], Tony Visconti had a string quartet and we were doing the other song and I was playing on those and everybody left and it was me and David, and he’s like, “Did you get to look at ‘Loving the Alien’?” and I played this loop to demonstrate and I start playing with it and he comes in singing and I keep playing and he keeps singing—we do the whole song. And he said, “Great, we’ll do that tomorrow night.”
Then that was that. It was like one of those things where I guess I got it right, but it was his idea, his song, and his idea to do it in this way. I brought my thing to it. He liked it. We did it. He liked it so much for me to continue to do it and it framed the song. It would be fair to say that we didn’t overthink it, but I also worked with David a few times prior, so I knew that I had to come up with something that stood on its own. I’m really proud that we got to do that. I’m very proud of the arrangement, and I love that he liked it. So, it was a nice moment where our two worlds met.
BL: It seems that Bowie recognized what all of you were doing for his music, using, for example, bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey as a foil while performing the songs and joking with the audience.
GL: Well exactly. David loved the personalities and he chose people as role players. Mike Garson [Bowie’s long-time keyboardist] would say he was like a casting director when it came to this and he did celebrate the musicians. He was very generous in those ways. And he was very comfortable in his own skin and he was able to share the spotlight in the sense, to give Gail a solo—and he always gave people their due.
BL: On the Reality album, I sense the perfection in the studio that began with Station to Station. And the social philosophy that began with Low. When you were working in the studio on Reality and Heathen, were you thinking of it that way?
GL: He definitely heard a lot of those philosophies going around, you could tell, in terms of the songs. I love what he did with Heathen. He took a real shift—he was going to do this record, essentially his reworked songs that he had over the years, and then suddenly he shut down that project and went and did Heathen. It was almost like he went off and wrote a novel or a prose thing. And I love that about it.
David was such an avid reader. He was always a searcher. You could tell. You’d come in, and if you hadn’t seen him in a while, he was always full of these stories or facts or things that he was interested in, whether it was art, sculpture, TV shows, whatever was going on. He really liked to stay in touch with a lot of things that were current, whether it’s music or comedy or TV or film, but he was always reading all kinds of stuff. And when he did the Next Day record and the Black Star record [Bowie’s final album] he was really into his books and those stories are seeping into his work. It’s a classic situation where David always got this insatiable thirst for art and then he had this way of taking what really inspired him from that stuff and somehow working it into his records and his music, and I think that happened all the way along. He just had this uncanny knack. I think when you got two records like Heathen and Reality it was just a more evolved, or more grownup version of it.
You were aware that these things were going on. Often though, working with David, you didn’t get the full picture until later because he would [only] have some lyrics done. He’d generally have a melody and a sense of what or where he wanted the song to go. But he was always open for you to put your two cents in. And sometimes you put something in there, and it would make it turn for everybody.
BL: When I saw Bowie in New York in 1978, there was no rock star thing going on with him. I was amazed he would stand back in the background just enjoying the band at times during solos.
GL: That’s classic Bowie. He was really good at reading people, reading situations. He had an instinct for that. I think he’s a huge music fan too, with other artists, and he had a real sense of how to write a song. If you take something like Heroes, he’s already reinvented himself a few times. And now he’s with Visconti, and he’s coming to the table with all these fresh ideas. It made such a potent thing, and it knocked all our socks off.
BL: When Bowie died, my friends and I were heartbroken. It’s so rare that a public figure’s life is so roundly applauded for his life in the media on passing. But for you, this is your friend, bandmate, and creative partner, a different level of grief.
GL: It is. It’s still hard to believe that he’s not with us. I was used to long periods where I wouldn’t see David, or didn’t speak with him, so it wasn’t unusual to be without him for a while, but at the same time, to realize that you’re never going to have those moments again is really, really sad. You have a feeling of the things that you should have said, you could have said, opportunities that were missed, just on a personal level, you think, “Oh God, why didn’t I say this? Or do this or ask him this?” It’s ongoing. At the same time, I know he would want us to just do our music and be the best that we can be. He was always really encouraging. When I was with Spooky Ghost, and I would do some shows on the road, he would come out to them every now and again, just to hang out. He was super supportive. So you temper it with that. We miss him.
BL: One of my friends once said, “There will be all the pop songs that nobody’s going to remember in the years ahead. And at that time, they are still going to be studying David Bowie.”
GL: Well, I think he would be happy to hear that. I don’t think he was made in that way, but he was a searcher, and he was not interested in resting on his laurels. That’s what is really rich about this whole scene of David Bowie, that there’s plenty to go on, and the archeological dig can continue for some time. The guy operated on a lot of different levels, and yet he was able to write and speak to the multitude. He had that gift, whether in Changes or in Heroes, or any of these iconic songs, he was able to capture what we all thought, felt, and wished for. That’s what’s beautiful about it. It was always contemporary, and it was always written for the people. It wasn’t written for some kind of elite. A unique gift. I miss him terribly.
People come up and tell me that all the time, especially when going to do these Bowie celebration gigs, and that’s all they want to talk about, their experience how David moved them, how he changed them. It’s really remarkable. It’s also hopeful. I feel like as part of the legacy with David, part of our duty is to keep his work alive. I feel very lucky to have worked with him, he was the one that really moved people, and everybody’s looking to get a little closer to that.
Thanks to Victor Cisneros and Erin Henegan for technical assistance in recording and transcribing this interview. [Edited for clarity and length.]