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An Interview with Artist Ann Chernow of Westport, Connecticut
The artist Ann Chernow was born in 1936 and grew up in New York City. She has worked extensively in the mediums of lithography, silkscreen, etching, and colored pencil as well as oil painting. Known as “The Queen of Noir,” she achieved extensive recognition for her portrait-style works evoking the images of female cinematic figures from the 1930s and 1940s, especially those appearing in black and white films. Ms. Chernow has lived in Westport, Connecticut for many years, where she is a long-time and beloved leader of the extended arts community.
Chernow’s second husband, Burt Chernow (d. 1997), was an art historian and professor at Housatonic Community College, where he founded the Housatonic Museum of Art. The couple established a wonderful art collection, including prints and works in various mediums by some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. She later became the life partner of actor and documentarian, Martin West (d. 2020). Chernow has traveled the globe and befriended numerous artists and art dealers.
When you view Chernow’s works in person, you can’t help but be struck by her use of representation and portraiture as a means of evoking a sense of veiled mystery. Chernow’s work elicits a tactile response to the many textures of her graphic details. Her works grab the beholder with immediacy and profound emotion.
In late August 2020, Chernow was kind enough to respond to interview questions by email:
You are in your 80s and you’ve said that with so many ideas for new works, you’ve considered putting together an Andy Warhol-like “Factory” of assistants to speed up the process of making prints, etc. Is it both a blessing and a curse that after decades you are as creative, if not more, as ever?
There are many artists who have assistants actually creating the artist’s work. I have had years of studio help but never had people making my work though I’ve considered it because I’ve never been able to bring to life all the images crowding and dancing in my mind. I usually fall asleep mind-creating images. If I could live hundreds of years, I could never realize all of them. Choosing the images I actually produce is akin to choosing what children you would keep. I’ve come to an acceptance that I can only do so much. But I decided long ago never to have other people making my work.
I have many non-artist friends who are retired but I’ve never thought about retiring. One of my mentors, the artist Isabel Bishop worked every day. Even in her late years with Parkinson’s as her devil, she took a subway when she was able to from the Bronx to her studio in Union Square in Manhattan. She, and others like her, are my heroes. It’s neither a blessing nor a curse that the images just keep coming, it’s just work; it’s my life.
I consider you one of the few remaining creatively original and great representational artists. What motivates your reality-based work?
During the past fifteen years most of my work has been informed by the movie genre of film noir. The images are based on specific impressions related to movies from the 1930s and 1940s then freely interpreted without altering the spirit of the chosen cinematic information. I try to create a sense of déjà vu or nostalgia without the sentimentality often associated with specific film references…I alter the perception of “star” using contemporary models; this attitude brings an image closer to the contemporary viewer. Depicting a universal gesture and establishing dramatic moments are paramount. Once experienced, a movie is never totally forgotten. Memories from films are channels, metaphor and private reverie through which I address the human condition. I’ve never followed “trends”.
Serious work began in college, NYU’s art programs offered new insights. It was the 1960s and Abstract Expressionism was the style of choice. I was asked to leave a number of classes because I refused to work abstractly. The artist Jules Olitski was the only instructor who understood what I was trying to reach, and even though he was an Abstract Expressionist, he allowed me to work realistically, telling visual stories. I’ve never deviated from that approach.
Your Shadow of a Doubt series evokes an amazing response when experienced in person. How did you conceive of the series?
Shadow of a Doubt uses images culled from the film noir, Laura, which is one of my favorite films. I’ve watched it many, many times, sketch from it, then push the aesthetic to reach a satisfying composition with many levels of the colors black to white. The various media I used: lithography ink, pencils, sandpaper, razor blades, and “white out’ (yes, it’s the liquid that erases mistakes on paper, but it also works on other surfaces). I use this media combination with paintings, drawings, and prints. I usually concentrate on images of femmes fatales and Gene Tierney as Laura is [a] quintessential [femme fatales].
From late March to May of 2020, the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, CT had an exhibition, “Collaboration 2020: Ann Chernow and James Reed Explore the Lithographs of Pablo Picasso” where you researched Picasso’s techniques extensively and created a set of prints using what you had learned. How did the project and exhibition come about?
My master printer, James Reed, and I had the idea five years ago to try to replicate the surface feeling of a Picasso print. We researched and soon realized that even the most detailed catalogs did not include specific information on the methods or actual material processes used by Picasso. Further research and speaking with experts revealed that no printer could supply that information. So, James and I set out to use an image of mine to achieve this [texture]; we tried many experiments with various materials. When we finally successfully completed one print, we were so excited that over the next five years—between other print work—we realized sixty-one Picasso/Chernow works, most of which were experiments with media.
You were close friends with the artist Christo, who recently died, and his late wife and collaborator, Jeanne Claude. Your late husband, Burt Chernow, wrote a biography of the couple and your late companion, Martin West, was also deeply involved with their monumental projects. What can you say about having been so close to Christo and his influence?
My heroes are those whose work ethic dominated their lives. Christo and Jeanne Claude lived their work, not much else interested them. Once, their lawyer persuaded them they needed to take a vacation; after two days they came home, bored with doing nothing. That work ethic is what I most admired, along with the wonderful absurdity of their realized projects. We worked on every one from 1971 until the Central Park Gates. Before he wrote the biography of the Christos, Burt and I spent three weeks in Bulgaria, where Christo was born and lived until 1968 when he fled that country for France. It was one of the most interesting trips of our lives. Burt died before The Gates was realized. Martin West and I took open “rickshaws” around The Gates, and he [Martin] filmed them. All our lives were enriched by the years with the Christos.
My novella, The Empathiad, has your Lady in the Lake on the cover; seeing it changed the direction of the book after I discovered it online. Do you consciously aim to be inspirational and mysteriously obscure to your viewers and other artists?
Lady in the Lake embodies the raison d’etre for my work: it’s a reinterpretation from a film noir [film]. It’s a subject that’s universal, open to the viewer’s interpretation; what the femme fatale is doing is open to the imagination, it’s dramatic, it could be a placid moment or dangerous, but it’s accessible. To quote from Alice Munro, “You just have to have the will to disturb.”
How would you describe the magic of Westport as a haven for artists?
Westport, Connecticut, has, since the early 1900s, been known nationally as a haven for visual artists, writers, theatre people, musicians, art collectors, entrepreneurs, and teachers. One of the first artists to arrive here in the early 1900s was Arthur Dove, whose work here changed the face of American art. It happened like the Pied Piper: artists would move here, for the summer or for the year, their artist friends would visit and then follow. Martin West, my life-partner and documentarian, addressed this in his 2000 film A Gathering of Glory, which covers all the arts. In 2009 he created another film, [Years in the Making] about fifty Westport artists over the age of 70 who were still actively working in their studios and having national exhibitions. It won seven awards in national film competitions, had a red carpet opening at the local cinema in 2010, and was shown on national television. Martin was developing a documentary about my work, called A Moment in Time. A filmmaker friend hopes to complete it next year.
Martin West was an extraordinarily kind and generous man. What else can you tell us about him?
Martin began his acting career in New York City in the play, The Andersonville Trial. He was 22 when he made Freckles, his first movie in Hollywood. [He also appeared in the last film made by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, Family Plot]. Before leaving Hollywood and moving here [Westport] in 1993 to open a filmmaking business, Martin starred in over thirty movies, [spent] nine years as a soap opera star as General Hospital’s Dr. Brewer, and [appeared] on numerous TV shows including Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Law and Order, and Bonanza among others. He was an extraordinarily wonderful person, smart, funny, empathetic, interesting, kind, and every other positive adjective to describe a special person.
You’ve had a difficult past year with the loss of Martin and Christo, being confined by the pandemic, and living without power for days after a recent hurricane. What lies ahead of you as an artist and with your commitment to the Westport artistic scene?
Yes, this has been a daunting year so far with both human and natural disasters. Work is my salvation. I have just completed ten lithographs for a portfolio titled, Femmes Fatales. I’m also illustrating a group of poems written in noir style by a friend about the seven deadly sins. I’m co-author of a monthly column: “ART TOWN” in The Westport News. I’ve been made an honorary member of the Westport Collective, a group of about 150 artists from in and around Westport. I continue to work with the Westport Public Art Collections, and the Housatonic Museum and Norwalk Community Art Collections. I write short stories when I’m too tired to make art [and] have had one published, which won an award. Towering above all of this, I have a caring family who has kept me sane through all of the major difficulties of the past year. I have always been a “glass half full” person and hope to continue working for a long number of years.
Who among you could guess what experience my grandfather, great uncle, and the revered Rockefeller scientist Hideyo Noguchi (whose bust decorates our library) have in common, and how might they have met?
Friends and colleagues who are nice enough—or foolish enough—to enquire about my activities in retirement risk being regaled about two undertakings that have preoccupied me in the past few years: political activism and genealogical research. With the coronavirus shutdown and the bleak weather upstate this spring, I no longer had an excuse to evade writing about either. After five years of research, for myself and others, I have a few ancestry stories I’d like to tell. One of them concerns the unlikely connection between my grandfather, my great uncle, and Hideyo Noguchi, the revered Japanese bacteriologist sometimes (mistakenly) credited with discovering the causative agent of syphilis. In December 1900, Noguchi travelled to the United States to join Simon Flexner’s lab in Philadelphia and moved with Flexner to The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1904, where he worked on syphilis and other infectious diseases, including, fatefully, yellow fever.
After our parents died, my cousin Peter and I discovered a few boxes containing family documents we had not previously seen. To our amazement, these boxes contained some of our grandfather’s ships’ logs, notebooks, letters, and other original documents. Having the time and knowing almost nothing about our ancestors, even those in our grandparents’ generation, Peter’s wife Sheila and I started our projects. Grandfather William Herbert Cross (1870–1918) was a Master Mariner, certified to captain merchant ships. He, along with his older brother Charles and younger brother Frederick, moved up the ranks to this position in the 1890s. They captained mainly cargo ships, both sail- and steam-powered, circumnavigating the globe and making many crossings of the Pacific Ocean between Japan and the United States. I have notes and photographs showing that my grandfather carried a few famous passengers to Alaskan gold-rush towns, and I have photographs of him taken in Brooklyn, when he was an apprentice seaman.
Today’s tale starts with one letter we inherited, which was remarkable for the insight it provided into Herbert’s character and his close relationship with Charles. This letter to Charles, dated 1909, announced in flowery language his plan to marry. The letter included the following passage, with a riff on the number nine: “…the date fixed for this voyage is Sep 29th, 1909. My intended wife is 29 and I am 39 so you will see we are not seven but 9, not No. 9 Yokohama, no I have given that a miss for a long time.”
Which brings us to the answer to my first question, initially provided—unsurprisingly—by Google. No. 9 Yokohama is a brothel; a quite famous one apparently, or perhaps I should say infamous. Some of its history recorded online includes a photograph showing “Gorgeously dressed prostitutes…standing in the windows of the Nectarine brothel in Yokohama, a world-famous house of prostitution also known as No. 9 or Jimpuro [sometimes translated as Jinpuro or Shinpuro].” This website went on to describe No. 9 as well as one of its more famous patrons:
Jimpuro was not only popular with foreigners, but with Japanese men as well. In 1900, bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), who now graces Japan’s 1,000-yen bill and was nominated for a Nobel Prize three times, blew almost 500 yen (a small fortune at the time) at Jimpuro during a single night of pleasure. Some 300 yen of which he had received from an acquaintance, on condition that he marry her niece. Even worse, part of the money was supposed to have been used for the purchase of a ticket for passage to America. He managed [again] to borrow money from a friend and did make it to the States, where he eventually became a top bacteriologist at the Rockefeller Institute. He never married the niece, though, and left the repayment of the 300 yen to the same friend he borrowed money from for the ticket to the USA.
To publish this story, I thought I’d better do some fact checking. I found the above account to be entirely consistent with the 1929 Science obituary written by Rockefeller’s first president, Simon Flexner, and with the extensive and authoritative 2003 biography Dr. Noguchi’s Journey: A Life of Medical Search and Discovery written by Atsushi Kita and translated into English by Peter Durfee. The story of how Noguchi overcame physical disability and an impoverished rural background to find his way to Rockefeller is truly awesome. I recommend Kita’s book, which is in the Rockefeller library, to anyone interested in the early twentieth century history of viral and bacterial diseases; it’s a very readable and fascinating history of a Japanese and Rockefeller icon.
The biography tells us that, when he had cash in his pocket (he borrowed frequently from friends and mentors), Noguchi drank heavily and frequented brothels while training in Tokyo (1). It confirms that he obtained the money to pay for his move to the United States dishonorably, by accepting three hundred yen from a family whose daughter he agreed to marry when he returned to Japan (2), which he never did. Finally, it confirms that, a few days before his departure, he insisted on treating his Yokohama colleagues to a grand banquet at Jimpuro, the famous brothel and “supposedly finest restaurant in Kanagawa Prefecture at the time,” which cost him nearly the entire 500 yen in his possession (3). This expense led Noguchi to once again beg one of his mentors for money to buy a ticket to San Francisco. He departed on December 5, 1900 (4). He traveled by train from San Francisco to Philadelphia; imagine doing that today. He was 24 years old. Coincidentally, 500 yen is the entry fee to the Noguchi Memorial Museum in his birth town.
The biography provided a plausible answer to my second question. I doubt that Noguchi and my ancestors met at the brothel, but they might have met through the job Noguchi held briefly in September 1899 as a quarantine officer in the port of Yokohama (5), where he was apparently the only officer who spoke English. A quarantine officer’s duties included meeting incoming ships to check their crews and passengers for communicable diseases. I know for certain that my grandfather was in Yokohama exactly one year earlier, and that he made additional trips there between 1898 and 1904, and perhaps until shortly before his marriage in 1909, but I don’t have any ships’ logs or other records from 1899 onwards. Shortly after his marriage, my grandfather retired from his seafaring life, considering it too dangerous given his family responsibilities (his first son, Peter’s father, was born nine months after his wedding). Ironically, life on shore proved more dangerous than at sea, as he and another of his brothers died in the second wave of the 1918 flu pandemic.
On April 10, 1912, Noguchi married Mary Dardis, whom he had met while in Philadelphia. Late in 1917, they decided to build a small cabin in the Catskills town of Shandaken, about ten miles west of where I now live, by a stream that I have to assume was the Esopus Creek. The biography has a photograph of this cabin, with its mountainous backdrop, but I could not identify its exact location today. Noguchi died from Yellow Fever in Accra, in the country known today as Ghana, on May 21, 1928. I was able to find his name on the passenger list of the ship that conveyed him from Liverpool, on the 2nd of November 1927, to Accra.
That’s my story, the first of several I’m hoping to tell.
- Kita, Atsushi, Dr. Noguchi’s Journey: A Life of Medical Search and Discovery, (2003) pp. 82, 89-90.
- ibid. pp. 122 and 125
- ibid. p. 126
- ibid. p. 128
- ibid. p. 109
For this issue, I interview Edith and Lio, the cats who live with our very own Audrey Goldfarb (Graduate Student, The Rockefeller University). I have been enjoying seeing pictures of these two since I found their social media account. I hope I can meet them in person soon.
Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?
Edith: We turned 2 in August! We’re twins.
Lio: I’m technically thirty seconds older though.
PV: Is there a story behind your names?
E: There’s a story behind our middle names!
L: Mine is “Finch” after the family in To Kill a Mockingbird. Edith needed a bird middle name too, so we picked “Pigeon.”
PV: Are you related? If not, what did you think of each other when you first met?
E: Yes, we’re sibs! We love each other sooooo much :)))))
L: When I first met Edith, I thought she was pretty weird, but her personality has grown on me over the last couple years.
PV: What is your first memory?
E: Breakfast! Speaking of which, I think it’s about time for lunch.
PV: Where do you live?
E: We live in Faculty House with four humans: Audrey, Joanna, César, and Marley.
PV: What are your favorite neighborhoods in NYC?
E: The kitchen and the bedroom!
PV: What are your favorite foods?
E: Why, do you have some? I’m not picky!
L: I usually snack on important paperwork and beloved plants.
PV: Besides your human roomies, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?
L: No comment…we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
E: One time, Lio misjudged his trajectory to jump up on the table and fell off in the most inelegant way possible. It was hilarious.
L: That was you, and it has definitely happened more than once.
PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?
E: Yes, we’re famous on Instagram! @edith_lio
L: We have thirty-three followers.
PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?
E: I wish I could grow my fur out as long as the humans were growing theirs during quarantine! So much fashionable potential.
PV: How have you helped your human get through these times?
L: By exemplifying stoicism in the face of adversity.
This month, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office and Angelica Arroyo from Great Performances teamed up with El Indio to compose and record an original song, “Starry Eyes.” Arroyo and El Indio wrote the lyrics while Langs wrote and performed the instrumental accompaniment. Vocals were contributed by Langs and El Indio. “Starry Eyes” can be heard on Langs’ SoundCloud page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to the lives of New Yorkers, including limited opportunities for exercise. While gyms, fitness studios, and yoga centers were shuttered, many New Yorkers turned to outdoor running in an attempt to boost their physical and mental health during this major public health crisis. Now that gyms are opening their doors again, novice runners are still sticking to their pandemic fitness routines—and with good reason!
A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that voluntary physical activity in mice increases the brain’s resilience to psychological stress, which is a major risk factor for several mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. In fact, just three weeks of unrestricted access to a running wheel caused mice to display less anxiety-like behaviors in response to a light foot shock. This change was due to an increase in the levels of the protein called galanin. Galanin is produced in large quantities in the brain and spinal cord; its functional role in the central nervous system is widely debated, but several studies suggest that galanin might be important for coping with stress. To confirm that an exercise-related increase in galanin in the brain boosts stress resilience in mice, researchers used genetic tools to artificially increase galanin levels in the brains of sedentary mice. As a result, sedentary mice became just as resilient to stress as mice that had access to a running wheel but did not undergo any genetic manipulations. Would routine aerobic exercise confer a similar resistance to stress in humans? Considering how conserved the brain circuits that regulate stress responses are across species and how important they are for species survival, we would expect similar results in humans, though this has not been directly addressed. In addition, exactly how much aerobic exercise is necessary to give you nerves of steel remains unclear.
In the rodent experiment, mice ran up to 10-16 kilometers (6-9 miles) per day, which might not be feasible for us bipeds with full-time jobs. Moreover, high-volume and high-intensity running (such as often practiced by competitive runners) increases the risk of developing hip and/or knee osteoarthritis, a common condition that causes the protective tissue at the ends of bones known as cartilage to wear down. Conversely, recreational running protects your cartilage from wear and tear, especially when you compare recreational runners to people with a sedentary lifestyle. Taken together, these studies hint that there is a sweet spot when it comes to how much running you need to engage in to achieve maximal benefits for your physical and mental health. Although weekly running distance may vary depending on fitness level and exercise goals, studies suggest that clocking in as little as fifty minutes per week improves overall health and longevity and reduces mortality, especially when it comes to death from cardiovascular diseases and cancer. So, lace up, mask up, and get moving—your mind and your body could use a little more resilience.
“How are you?” is more of a formality than a genuine question. Any response other than a variation of “Good! How’re you?” is unexpected. I personally find maintaining a façade of blue skies to be emotionally draining, so I tend to answer the “how are you?” question honestly when I’m actually not okay. However, for the last several months, can any of us claim to have been okay at baseline? And if the answer is no, are we admitting it?
I anonymously polled Rockefeller community members to gauge our wellbeing more accurately, as well as to give people an opportunity to outwardly acknowledge that they are indeed struggling. The responses were mixed, some reading as guarded and stoic, others raw and vulnerable. Individual experiences are also variable. I hope that sharing some of these experiences reinforces a sense of community around our mutual tumult and reminds us all that it’s okay to not be okay. “There are days of dread and fear, and others of hope,” one Rockefeller employee said.
Productivity and mental health have a complicated relationship, but often they suffer together. Our work life was severely disrupted during quarantine, and even though campus has reopened, it is a far cry from how it looked and felt in February. Shift work also puts limits on the time we can spend in the lab.
“Working from home is not efficient and productive for me,” one student said. “It’s harder for me to be focused on working at home because home really doesn’t give me the environment of working. And of course, I cannot go to the lab to do experiments so very little progress on research. Honestly speaking, I feel frustrated spending months at home getting limited things done.”
Zoom makes lectures accessible from anywhere but staring at a screen all day takes a toll. Many of us struggle to achieve the same level of engagement they have during in-person lectures. “I can’t focus during Zoom classes or meetings, most of what was said in them has been erased from my memory,” a student said.
“I am much less productive, and much less able to focus,” another student said.
“It’s hard trying to work at home especially since before this I’ve always tried really hard to separate work and home spaces,” another student said. “I’ve just resigned myself to not being at the ‘height of productivity.’ Right now, I’m rethinking my approach to lab work and trying to put my personal well-being much more ahead of lab productivity.”
With no end in sight, the many concerns we obsess over remain unresolved. “The uncertainty of when everything will go back to normal, when will we go back to lab, when can we travel to see our families, when can people who are stuck somewhere in the world will be able to go out, when can we all feel safe again so I don’t have fear if a family member gets sick.”
“So far it seems like we are all learning about this virus day-by-day, with no clear end in sight.”
“Personally, I just keep reminding myself that this won’t last forever. It won’t go away tomorrow, but it’s not going to be like this for the next decade.”
Social distancing made it impossible to fully lean on friends and family for support. Our social lives were hit hard. “I’ve forgotten how to interact with people,” one student said. “I particularly noticed that I’m having difficulty looking at other people’s faces and maintaining eye contact in person, and that I’ve forgotten how to end conversations.”
We have been deprived of many of our coping mechanisms, socialization in particular, but also other escapes and entertainment around the city. Without space away from our internal and external conflicts, they become even more exhausting and tormenting. “It is my anxiety about racial conflicts on top of the usual pandemic issues that really keeps me up at night,” one international student said.
“Everyone has their special circumstances that have made dealing with this pandemic difficult,” a student, whose family member started chemotherapy in February, said. “For me it was concern about immunocompromised family members and social isolation leading to an almost agoraphobia due to lack of access to the outside…The existential dread was really able to set in!”
“I think in general we also need to talk more about how hard this has been without trying to one-up each other about who’s had it the hardest,” another student said.
The gradual reopening of campus and resumption of lab work comes with an expectation of personal productivity and functionality. Some might interpret this to mean that we should be adjusting to and coping with this “new normal,” refocusing on our work, and getting back on track. However, as reflected in the statements above, not everyone’s timeline is in sync.
A member of the Tri-Institutional community put it simply. “No one is okay,” he said. “We’re living through a global pandemic. Anyone who tells you they are okay is lying to themselves.”
Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office is celebrating the digital release of “The Show Must Go On (and other songs by Queen).” Langs performs a medley of themes and sections from Queen songs, centered around Queen’s release, “The Show Must Go On” off their 1991 album Innuendo. Langs’ work can be heard online on his SoundCloud page here.
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. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!
We have all seen Dr. Anthony Fauci, currently the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), on television providing facts about the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months. It was a long road to this critical position, but Fauci’s path may be somewhat familiar to many people here in the Tri-Institutional community.
Dr. Fauci is a native New Yorker. He was born in December of 1940, and grew up in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. His father was a pharmacist with his own store on 13th Avenue near 83rd Street. As a boy, Fauci worked in the pharmacy, ringing up customers and delivering prescriptions, and lived upstairs with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Fauci attended Regis High School on East 84th Street in Manhattan. Athletic from an early age, Fauci was captain of the basketball team, even though he was not particularly tall. He later attended College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and earned a degree in Classics with a pre-med concentration. Fauci went on to Cornell University Medical College, where he graduated first in his class. He completed his internship and residency right here at New York Hospital-Cornell.
In 1968, Fauci joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation, where he became a specialist in infectious diseases. Fauci mostly treated patients with autoimmune disorders and observed that many cancer drugs lowered a patient’s autoimmune response. He devised a protocol to give autoimmune patients very low doses of the cancer drugs, which lowered their autoimmune response to a point that prevented them from getting symptoms. This protocol is now a standard treatment for a category of diseases called vasculitis, which cause inflammation of blood vessels.
Fauci also performed basic research in the NIH Laboratory of Immunoregulation. In 1980 he became head of that lab and examined how immunosuppressive drugs change the human immune response. He also studied how HIV infects the body, particularly how the virus suppresses the immune system. In 1984, Fauci accepted the position of Director of the NIAID, under the condition that he be allowed to keep his research lab. He has served in both positions ever since. From 1983 to 1986, Deborah Birx, the United States Global AIDS Coordinator and Fauci’s recent counterpart in COVID-19 press conferences, completed two fellowships in clinical immunology in the areas of allergies and diagnostics in Fauci’s lab.
Fauci has published over 1,300 papers, is the 41st most cited researcher on Google Scholar, and ranks 4th in immunology on Web of Science. He has received many awards, including the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Mary Woodward Lasker Award for Public Service, the National Medal of Science, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
During the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Fauci came under much criticism from AIDS activists who claimed he was withholding experimental treatments from patients. Fauci invited his most vocal critic, Larry Kramer, to his office to learn what the AIDS community needed and to build a relationship with them. He wound up becoming a leading activist himself, creating protocols for patients to receive drugs still in trials and pushing Congress for funding for AIDS research. In the end, Fauci received public praise from Kramer. Under George W. Bush, Fauci helped develop the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS (PEPFAR), which facilitated alleviating the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
After the September 11th attacks, Fauci established an NIH lab to study potential biological agents terrorists might use. He was the government lead, working with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), during the anthrax scares, the West Nile, Zika, and Ebola virus outbreaks, the 2002 SARS epidemic, and the swine flu pandemic. In January of 2020, he recognized that COVID-19 would be a global threat and started an NIH research team to develop a vaccine.
On January 29, 2020, a White House Coronavirus Task Force was formed, with Fauci being among the initial members. He appeared regularly during the frequent press briefings that were held during the first couple of months of the pandemic. He quickly gained a reputation for speaking to the public calmly but factually, and often delivered updates on new scientific understandings of the disease. He is often heard asking for compliance with regulations and recommendations to slow the spread of the virus, including to stay home whenever possible, to social distance and wear masks, and to wash your hands frequently. On July 31, he testified before Congress saying he was ““cautiously optimistic” a COVID-19 vaccine would be ready by the end of the year.
Fauci often tactfully fact-checks statements from politicians about the virus. Some have accused him of changing his mind about the virus and of destroying the economy. It’s been noted that Fauci did not appear at the later task force press conferences and reported that he is not invited to task force meetings. At one point the current president seemed to offer support for his firing. The head of NIH, Francis Collins, has said firing Fauci “would be unimaginable.” Fauci has received death threats against him and his family, and had to get a Secret Service detail. Asked if he would resign due to the politics he said “No. I think the problem is too important for me to get into those kinds of thoughts and discussions. I just want to do my job.”
Even though he is known for having sixteen hour work days, Fauci stays athletic, running seven miles during his lunch hour for almost his entire career. Recently, due to his extra responsibilities during the pandemic, he has cut the run down to three and a half miles. An avid Washington Nationals fan, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at their home opener on July 23. Now he often appears wearing a face mask with the team’s logo.
Fauci has had a long and distinguished career in the areas of basic research, medicine, and developing government healthcare policies. Although he will turn eighty this December, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Every night at 7 p.m., Upper East Side community members gather at Carl Schurz park for a socially distant vigil to honor those killed by police. The discussion is led by various volunteers from the community, with time allotted at the end for anybody in attendance to speak. These short speeches might be political news updates, calls to action, personal experiences, or history lessons. One action remains the same each night: we raise our fists in silence for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the time it took George Floyd to die under the knee of Derek Chauvin.
The memorial pictured has been rebuilt by the organizers several times after being vandalized. Whitney, one of the organizers, recalls finding the memorial covered in dog feces one day. Another morning, parks department employees had thrown it all away. Fortunately, each time the memorial has been destroyed, community members have replaced the posters and artwork in time for the vigil at 7 p.m.
Rebuilding the memorial is one manifestation of how this community has come together to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. This support is also apparent in donations of hand sanitizer, masks, and provisions for people marching afterwards. Some people bring candles and signs to distribute throughout the crowd.
The vigil is a supportive environment for community members to voice their experiences and share information. However, there are moments of tension and sometimes hostility. On one occasion, a Blue Lives Matter gathering was held in the street, blocked off by gates fifty feet from the vigil. Police officers mingled with men, women, and children, the majority of whom were not wearing masks. Confrontations between the two groups across the gates permeated the moment of silence and speeches that followed.
Another night, one of the speakers misjudged the crowd’s tolerance of more moderate political views. He began by voicing his fondness of Joe Biden and went on to say that the killing of George Floyd was wrong, however, Floyd “did not have the best track record with the law.” This speaker was aggressively booed, and the organizers directed him to return to his seat. He was replaced by a Black woman who delivered an impassioned speech in which she compared the treatment of George Floyd to that of Dylann Roof, who after slaughtering nine people in a historic Black church in South Carolina, was given a burger by the officers who arrested him.
Despite moments of intensity and passion, the vigil has been notably nonviolent and respectful. Even the man who mentioned George Floyd’s track record remained in the crowd afterwards and was not harassed.
The organizers of the vigil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome at 7 p.m. on 86th Street and East End Avenue every night to stand in solidarity for Black lives.
Giants of Classic Films: The Exceptional Mind Trapped in a World of Their Own Creation
The misunderstood great mind standing firm and alone with their vision, genius, or obsession has long been a theme in film history. Many of the genre’s greatest masterpieces center around such figures and feature actors of legendary stature performing under the guidance of directors of equally singular talent.
In director John Huston’s 1956 take on Herman Melville’s nineteenth century classic novel, Moby Dick, the one-legged Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck, doesn’t appear to his crew until many days after the whaling boat has set out to sea. He can be heard late at night as the men sleep below deck, pacing and pounding the boards with the carved peg of a whale bone that substitutes for the leg severed by the white whale, Moby Dick. When Ahab finally appears in daylight, gazing out at them from above on the bridge, the sailors freeze into a state of motionless, silent awe. Ahab’s subsequent speech morphs into an initiation of these starstruck men on the obsessive quest for their captain’s revenge for the loss of his limb and the tearing of his soul—a mission to slay the whale and right the wrong brought upon Ahab, a man of mesmerizing power.
It’s challenging to fully understand the absolute grip Ahab holds over his crew. They possess an unquestioned loyalty so terrific that they follow his mad pursuit to their deaths, “save ye one,” the lone narrator, Ishmael (Richard Basehart). It is in Ahab’s seemingly more rational conversation that we are brought deeper into the unique mind behind the stark madness, as he makes clear his motivating, defeatist theology while conversing with his pious first first mate, Starbuck (Leo Genn):
Starbuck: To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct is blasphemous.
Captain Ahab: Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.
Later in the film, when the business of whaling is being ignored by Ahab, evident in his willingness to abandon harpooning to follow up on leads of where Moby Dick may be heading in the vast sea, the captain and his first mate are at it again:
Ahab: What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! …
Starbuck: …I say calmly back to thee, sir, I am against thee. But thee needn’t fear Starbuck. Let Ahab beware Ahab. Beware thyself, my captain.
In the final moments of the movie, Ahab is drowned, pinned to the white whale by harpoon ropes, and as Moby Dick crests, the dead captain’s arm rolls back and forth across his body, beckoning the crew of the Pequod to complete what he couldn’t accomplish, the death of the beast. As one crew officer orders the boats to return to the ship, crying out, “no more, no more of this!” ironically it is Starbuck who loudly demands they kill Moby Dick, not for revenge, but because they are whalemen and their trade is whaling. In the end, it is the God-fearing Starbuck who leads the crew and the ship itself to the bottom of the ocean.
Orson Welles appears as a fear-invoking preacher of spell-binding ability in Moby Dick in one of the few introductory scenes that take place on land in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Welles’s 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane, might be considered the first American film about a singular powerful man who stands above all not just because of wealth, but because of the strength of his dynamic personality. Charles Foster Kane makes his millions not as other robber barons of the early twentieth century did through sales of commodities or by building railways. Kane instead takes his monetary inheritance and increases it more than a thousand-fold through the spread of the printed word, by owning a thriving chain of newspapers and magazines. His exploitation of international turmoil is made as an educated and intellectually calculated choice. Headlines matter, the truth of the situation doesn’t, and knowing that, he holds the key to an expanding empire. Perhaps Kane may be “Trumpian” by grabbing success at the cost of truth and ethics, but he is also self-aware and engages personally with his editors and journalists, but only if he receives the required respect, which they willingly give.
Kane can take in the ugly truths about the world and himself on all subjects and ideas “save ye one”—he has a deaf ear to what prevents him from giving and taking love from others, even when his best friend (Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland) and his wife (Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane), tell him forcefully to his face. He literally cannot hear and accept his greatest character flaw, perhaps because he knows it as something that he can’t change.
The famous keyword in Citizen Kane, “Rosebud,” is rarely uttered by the man, but when he does say it to himself, as recounted in the tales of his life told in flashbacks, the expression Welles brings to this man of money and influence melts to one of bitter loneliness and tired emotional reckoning. The source of his failure as a person is revealed in the final shot of the film, traced back to his unexpected childhood loss of innocence. “Rosebud”— even the richest man in the world with unquestioned power cannot escape the random cruelty of fate that spares not a soul.
There are dozens of movies based on the lives of real or fictional criminals leading mob gangs or organized crime syndicates. These men at the top gain and demand an “alternative” brand of respect that follows an unspoken “code” of honored admiration. In 2007’s American Gangster, Denzel Washington takes the lead on a story loosely based on Harlem’s Frank Lucas and his meteoric rise as a heroin kingpin in the late 1960s and 1970s. Washington’s Lucas is often merciless, yet unlike characters such as Kane and Ahab, he strives to be both gregarious and is naturally quick and witty. He transforms his drug business into a large family-run enterprise and buys a mansion for his poor mother, brothers, cousins, and other family to live in and enjoy. This is quite different from Kane’s massive and fear-invoking castle, Xanadu, which was less of a home than a medieval-like display of a Lord’s rights as master of his surrounding domain. Lucas is deferred to as the unquestioned leader through power of personality and his savvy business sense and serves as the cash cow for not only his relations, but for the neighborhood of Harlem itself at a time of social turmoil. The villainous dichotomy of Lucas loving his home city yet allowing a flood of heroin to destroy many of its most vulnerable inhabitants is never considered or understood by him as murderously wicked and morally duplicitous.
Lucas treks to Vietnam during the war to convince the jungle-based producers of the poppies for the drug to sell to him directly. This hidden source of the smuggled powder allows him to cut out the middlemen of the drug trade and is the key to his immense success and profits. As an African American, Lucas later concedes to doing business with a rich Italian mob boss only because he understands that they must be cut in or he’ll find his monopoly violently destroyed. Lucas is not impressed when that boss invites him to speak business at his huge house and property, never wavering in confidence or adjusting his tone in deference to this seasoned and extraordinarily wealthy gangster.
Many of us like to watch a movie by going into it recognizing the leading stars and then adapting to them in the role. Washington is so superlatively and always “Denzel,” yet he carries the unique ability of allowing his fans to quickly stop seeing him as such and only see his character Lucas, who is oddly very “Denzel”-like. Washington’s portrayal of Lucas is detailed and brilliant. In the end, as he faces conviction and personal defeat, we watch him slowly realize respect for another person for the first time since the death of his Harlem mentor, Bumpy Johnson in 1968, prior to his own rise in power. Lucas admires the quiet, messy, co-lead of the film, Newark, New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Roberts never gives up throughout the movie as an honest cop trying his hardest each day to rid the poor streets of New Jersey of the plague of heroin by hunting down the suppliers. Roberts persists even when threatened by cops on the take who grab what they can when making a bust or demanding extortion payoffs. When Lucas is alone with Roberts to cut a deal to reduce the time he will be forced to serve in prison, he is awed by Roberts’ willingness to go after not only the drug criminals but also the criminals within the ranks of the police at all levels. The smile that crosses his face, that million-dollar grin that only Washington can give, is the moment that Lucas knows he has finally met a person worthy of respect, and it is the man who is going to be putting him behind bars.
Of Frank Lucas, Captain Ahab, and Charles Foster Kane, only Lucas is comfortable as a seemingly kind family man and a man of the streets and benefactor to his neighborhood. Yet, as Elizabeth Bennett says in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice of the lying, duplicitous George Wickham, that despite all of his many charms of personality, “…yet, he is such a man.”
For this issue, I interview Maggi, the cat who lives with Priyanka Lakhiani (Graduate Student, The Rockefeller University) and her roommates. I caught sight of Maggi during a virtual meeting as she bathed herself gloriously while carefully listening to the ongoing discussion. She paused every once in a while as if she were about to contribute a thought, but decided otherwise. Naturally, I wanted to be friends with Maggi instantly.
Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?
Maggi: Not totally sure. My last owners abandoned me and the vet who saw me after I was rescued said I was probably about 2 or 3 years old, or older with impeccable dental hygiene! I like to think I’m older.
PV: Is there a story behind your name?
M: The previous name on my microchip was Mamacita, which my mom thought was a ridiculous name for a cat, so she named me after her favorite brand of Indian instant noodles, which is definitely not as ridiculous.
PV: I have to agree with that. How did you first meet your mom?
M: We met in the bathroom of my foster home in Brooklyn. My foster parents were very nice but their cat kind of hated me so I’m glad to live in my own home now.
PV: What is your first memory?
M: Not a clue, but I like to think I wasn’t truly alive until I ate some salami.
PV: Where do you live?
M: I live in Faculty House with my mom, our human roommates, and their plants (that I nibble on occasionally…)
PV: What are your favorite smells of NYC?
M: I haven’t been outside very much since I was rescued, but I can smell salami from across my apartment!
PV: What are your favorite neighborhoods in NYC?
M: I’ve lived in three boroughs so far, but I like the Upper East Side most because all my toys are here.
PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
M: Sometimes I Skype my human grandma in Mumbai. She seems like a very nice lady who would give me lots of treats so maybe I would move there.
PV: What are your favorite foods?
M: Unlike most cats, I’m actually an omnivore! I might even eat more cat grass than my mom eats vegetables.
PV: What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?
M: I like screaming at birds outside the window. I hope they’re terrified of me! I also like practicing tricks with my mom. High-fiving is so easy, and I get so many treats!
PV: Besides your mom, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?
M: Charlie, one of the maintenance staff in Faculty House, always gives me pets when he stops by! I don’t like leaks, but I love hanging out with him!
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
M: A few months ago, my mom tried training me to wear a harness so we could go on walks. We would go on short trips outside the apartment. I hated it so much that I gave myself a urinary disease and my mom had to take me to the vet. I hate the vet, but I never had to wear the harness again!
PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?
M: Apparently I’m too young for social media but you can find lots of (consensual) pictures of me on my mom’s Instagram!
PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?
M: I wish I could open the fridge door to steal salami.
PV: What do you miss the most about pre-COVID times?
M: Nothing!! All my human roommates have so much more time to spoil me now.
PV: How have you helped your mom get through these times?
M: I’ve been sleeping on my mom’s neck to keep her company. I think she feels very comforted, and not suffocated at all!!
Inside Iran: the Columns of Persepolis
Persepolis, or “the city of the Persians,” is located northeast of Shiraz—just about one hour by car. As the history of the site stretches back almost 2,500 years, Persepolis had embodied the magnificent wealth and prosperity of the Achaemenid Empire and is considered one of the most significant archeological sites of the Achaemenid Empire as well as pre-Islamic Persia until its destruction by Alexander the Great. If you want to see what it was like back then, renting a pair of Virtual Reality 3D reconstruction glasses at the entrance is highly recommended. Although the stones decay and colors fade, the columns of Persepolis still stand high and proud today—as if they have been witnessing the turbulent history of Iran for over the last two and half millennia.
Natural Selections Editorial Board
The appalling and tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis during a pandemic that was already disproportionately affecting Black communities provoked a global re-awakening for justice for Black people. This seeking of justice has not excluded the realm of academia.
The Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSI) is a student-run organization formed in 2018 with the support of Erich Jarvis as the faculty advisor. Dr. Jarvis, a Rockefeller alum himself, is the first and only Black full professor in the 119-year history of Rockefeller. RiSI’s mission is “to unify diverse voices and improve our campus and broader scientific community” in terms of diversity and inclusion. In the two short years since its inception, RiSI’s work and passion have already had an impact on the Rockefeller community and the broader scientific community, including their advocacy for contracted custodial workers at the beginning of the shutdown due to COVID-19.
So when no official statement came from Rockefeller for days after the murder of George Floyd and the beginning of protests, RiSI stepped up. On May 31, 2020, they sent an e-mail to the Rockefeller community acknowledging Floyd’s murder and encouraging university members to show their support for the Black community (see RiSI e-mail, page NNN).
Black Lives Matter signs were subsequently hung around the university, most prominently displayed to the public on the north side of the Kravis Research Building along the East River and in the halls of university housing (shown below). Unfortunately, the sign hung in university housing by Rockefeller graduate students Rachel Leicher and Donovan Phua was removed the next day, according to Leicher.
RiSI also followed up with an e-mail linking to helpful resources including fundraisers, petitions, literature, and organizations related to social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. After sending a statement of solidarity to the community along with this list of resources, RiSI collaborated with Women in Science at Rockefeller (WISeR) and People at Rockefeller Identifying as Sexual Minorities (PRISM), as well as a group of Rockefeller alumni to send concurrent e-mails to the Rockefeller administration addressing their silence.
RiSI, WISeR, and PRISM sent a collaborative e-mail to the administration on the evening of June 1 (see RiSI, WISeR, and PRISM e-mail, page NNN). After collecting 116 signatures from alumni belonging to graduating classes ranging from 1969 to 2020, the alumni group sent their e-mail the following afternoon on June 2 (see Rockefeller alumni e-mail, page NNN).
On the afternoon of June 2, the Rockefeller administration broke their silence with an e-mail to the Rockefeller community. After additional prompting by RiSI and others within the Rockefeller community to stand publicly in solidarity with the Black community, the initial e-mail response was made public two days later.
The administration also acknowledged their receipt of the alumni letter and said that they would use their ideas as resources to consider how to move forward and improve the community at Rockefeller.
RiSI continued to have multiple meetings with the administration and followed up with an additional letter and petition for the administration to commit to taking actionable steps to address racism on campus (see RiSI petition e-mail and petition, pages NNN-NNN).
Within twenty-four hours, the petition had garnered support from 350 members of the Rockefeller community. This continued effort led by RiSI resulted in the first racial equality Town Hall meeting of academic staff and students with the administration on June 10, which was also the date of #shutdownSTEM, a day used by academia to protest and reflect on social injustice in support of the Black community. As of June 25, RiSI’s petition had the support of 444 members of the Rockefeller community, including sixteen Heads of Laboratory.
The Rockefeller administration is trying to respond to these cries for justice. To show their support, they have provided free COVID-19 testing for those wishing to participate in protests in the city. Statements of solidarity, like the one given by President Rick Lifton at the beginning of the 2020 Virtual Convocation Ceremony, are greatly appreciated as are steps that have already been taken to make the university inclusive. But a response to cries for justice predicates that there is an unmet need in the community and there is clear room for improvement. Continued, consistent, and intentional action and support are required. Our community needs to unequivocally say and show that Black Lives Matter.
“Last Monday’s horrific scene in Minneapolis, in which police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee planted on George Floyd’s neck until his death, has sent shockwaves throughout the US. The frustration and anger towards Mr. Floyd’s death and staggering frequency of injustices on the Black community has culminated in nationwide protests in at least 48 cities. People are tired of the silence and frustrated at the lack of meaningful response to previous movements calling for social change.
Now is the time to show our support to the Black community in any way that we can at Rockefeller University. Though many may take comfort in the claim that science is apolitical, our Black community members are not afforded this privilege. The excellent work of several laboratories and departments at Rockefeller (lab safety, custodial, food, animal facility, etc) are led by people from communities hit the most by police brutality and racism. As Rockefeller begins to reopen, more people from these communities will be on campus and it will be important for their presence to be recognized.
One simple way to do this is by posting signs that reflect our support for the Black Lives Matter movement around the laboratory and other areas on campus that are heavily trafficked. Please refer to the signs in the dropbox link for examples to easily print out and put on windows and doors. If other laboratories/facilities nearby are interested as well please coordinate with each other to make something more visible.
Please ensure that your Head of Laboratory is comfortable and supportive of posting signs prior to doing so.”
RiSI, WISeR, and PRISM e-mail:
“Dear Members of the Rockefeller Administration,
Last Monday’s horrific scene in Minneapolis, in which police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee planted on George Floyd’s neck until his death, has sent shockwaves throughout the US and the world. The frustration and anger towards Mr. Floyd’s death, and the staggering frequency of injustices on the Black community, has culminated in nationwide protests in at least 48 cities. People across the country are tired of the silence, and frustrated at the lack of meaningful responses to previous movements calling for social change.
Though many may take comfort in the claim that science is apolitical, many in the Black community, and other communities of color, are not afforded this privilege. Science and medicine have a long, unfortunate history of exploiting marginalized communities, particularly those of color. Some of the most infamous examples include the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, the acquisition of HeLa cells from Henrietta Lacks, and the erroneous justification of racism through genetic studies.
Black individuals and communities most affected by police brutality and racism are an integral part of the Rockefeller community, leading much of the excellent and vital work in several laboratories and departments (lab safety, custodial, food, animal facility, etc.). As Rockefeller begins to reopen, more individuals from these communities will be on campus and it is imperative that their presence be recognized.
This past weekend, we, the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSI), sent out a call for students and postdocs to speak to their HOLs about posting Black Lives Matter signs around the laboratory. Additionally, we sent a list of funds, organizations, and media to support the cause further. Our emails were met with enthusiasm from both students and the HOLs they’ve contacted. The Rockefeller community is coming together during this time to show that movements for equality can be, and should be, advocated for by scientists.
As leaders of the University, your voice speaks volumes to our community, and those watching us. It would be meaningful to Black members of our Rockefeller community, and the community at large, for the administration to directly address the systemic racism brought to the forefront by recent tragedies, including George Floyd’s death. We ask that you consider joining many universities in expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, principles of equity and inclusion, and condemnation of police brutality and systematic racism in our nation. We also ask for your support in a community effort to hang Black Lives Matter signs in places where we can most powerfully show our stance, such as on the pedestrian bridge over 63rd St and Kravis Research Building windows facing the river.
César Vargas and Josue Regalado
Rockefeller Inclusive Student Initiative
Stephanie Marcus and Audrey Harnagel
Women in Science at Rockefeller (WISeR)
The PRISM Board
People at Rockefeller Identifying as Sexual Minorities (PRISM)
Rockefeller alumni e-mail:
“June 2, 2020
Dear Members of the Rockefeller Administration,
We are writing as alumni of Rockefeller University to express our support for the recent call to action from the graduate community to address racial justice and anti-racism. As you’re aware, there has been a large and appropriate response to the murder of Black Americans across the country. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade’s names have all been added to a long list of Black lives lost at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. We must recognize that our Black colleagues live with the knowledge that it could be them.
Rockefeller’s motto — science for the benefit of humanity — is a fundamentally political statement implying that science has a duty to serve society. Embedded within that motto are political questions, such as: for the benefit of whose humanity? Who is allowed to steer the science for that benefit? Throughout our history, we have seen the biomedical research community make research choices driven by politics and value judgments. When we run a Fisher’s Exact Test, we cannot forget that Ronald Fisher was a pioneer of eugenics. When we pull out a culture of HeLa cells, we cannot forget those cells were extracted from Henrietta Lacks without her consent. When confronted with the devastating statistics surrounding COVID-19, we cannot forget that this virus has taken disproportionately more Black lives because of systemic inequities in healthcare.
As leaders, you have a responsibility to Black trainees, faculty, and staff to openly and loudly affirm that you are aware of our history and that this legacy stops here. Your voice is essential in asserting you are working to ensure that Black members of our community are safe at work from racism and discrimination — that you commit to working for the benefit of their humanity, as well.
Universities and institutions across the country, including Harvard School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, have issued statements echoing their commitment to racial justice and anti-racism, as well as concrete actions they can take to ensure their words carry weight. Actions Rockefeller can take, in addition to supporting the community effort to hang a #BlackLivesMatter sign along the pedestrian bridge, include:
- Join leaders in the biomedical research community and publicly denounce racial injustice and anti-Black racism;
- Pledge not to call the police for non-violent crimes, while ensuring campus security are trained in methods of de-escalation;
- Require bystander intervention training;
- Hire anti-racist educators to educate faculty, staff, postdocs, and trainees on meaningful strategies to dismantle systemic racism;
- Convene a committee to draft an explicit anti-racism policy for the campus community, bringing in scholars of anti-racism and compensating them appropriately for their time;
- Hire independent diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants to assess the current atmosphere and university practices and serve as change management officers to transform the workplace culture;
- Create an anonymous system for members of the Rockefeller community to report acts of discrimination and bias;
- Recruit and retain students and faculty of color, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented;
- Create a policy that explicitly describes how faculty will be rewarded for mentorship and outreach in decisions of tenure and promotion, as these responsibilities often fall disproportionately on underrepresented faculty.
We sincerely hope that you use your position to combat the history of racism and violence — both within and outside of science — and stand with the Black community. Supporting Black lives follows in John D Rockefeller’s commitment to the abolition of slavery and his founding of Spelman College, America’s oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women. We must commit to do the learning and transformation necessary to be part of the solution and to develop robust anti-racist practices in science and society.
Until then, we are left with George Floyd’s last words to fill the silence: ‘I can’t breathe.’
The Rockefeller Alumni”
RiSI petition e-mail:
“Dear Rockefeller community,
In response to the global outrage at continued systemic racism and police brutality against members of the Black community, President Lifton’s statement last week called for “the beginnings of efforts to bring about lasting change” and a “rigorous inquiry to evaluate our own biases”. We hope that this statement only marks the start of campus-wide steps to address institutionalized racism on our campus. In efforts towards this cause, we at the Rockefeller Inclusive Student Initiative (RiSI) have been working with the Dean’s Office and administration to develop actionable plans for lasting change.
While we continue this dialogue, we want to ensure that all in our community are heard and that progress be transparent. We ask that everyone respond to a survey/petition to assess which changes are most needed and desired at Rockefeller. This survey also serves the dual role of a petition where everyone’s voices will be collected and sent to the administration as evidence that the broader Rockefeller community stands behind these actions. The longer this list of names is, the more significantly we can push for institutional change.
Within the survey, there is also a field for individual comments which we strongly encourage all to fill out to strengthen our petition with personal testimonies. There is a national movement for science and academia to #Strike4BlackLives planned for tomorrow, Wednesday, June 10th. We ask that on this day of pause, each of you take a moment to complete the survey and submit any personal accounts you feel comfortable sharing of institutionalized racism in education or science and reasons why institutional support for Black and underrepresented scientists is important. These will be collected and presented to the administration (with the option of remaining anonymous). Please respond by 11:59pm Wednesday, June 10th.
SURVEY/PETITION HERE: https://socialchangeatrockefeller.wordpress.com/
We are also currently asking the administration to conduct a campus-wide town-hall on racial equality issues present at Rockefeller. The responses provided in the survey will be an opportunity for you to draft what you’d like to see discussed at a town-hall, with the possibility of either reading it out yourself or by a member of RiSI on your behalf.
Finally, we encourage discussion within your labs and departments, and we ask that heads of labs and departments make space for difficult conversations concerning diversity and inclusion in science. We want to foster serious, empathetic conversations about racial discrimination and its effects on our scientific community campus-wide to show that these issues involve us all. Together we can take the anger, shock, and frustration that so many of us have rightfully felt these past days to take a stand for a campus that listens to and supports our Black and underrepresented minority members.
We owe it to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless others whose lives have been taken at the hands of institutionalized racism to fight for a more just and equal future. This begins by calling on the leaders of Rockefeller University to listen to our collective voice and fight with us. This movement will continue to press on because this is how change happens. We thank you for your passion.
The Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative”
“June 9, 2020
We are disappointed in the administration’s tepid response to the Black Lives Matter movement and a lack of commitment to institutional changes to make the University a more diverse AND inclusive place. We demand that the administration immediately design, circulate, and implement an action plan to make Rockefeller University a supportive environment for all our members of Black and underrepresented minority communities, among our students, postdocs, faculty, and staff.
This is our opportunity as a community to communicate that issues of diversity and inclusion are fundamentally important and need to be addressed by Rockefeller University’s administration.
We ask that you stand with us in our efforts to make Rockefeller University more inclusive by becoming a model for these efforts across academia, and sign this petition by the end of the day on Wednesday.
IN ADDITION to the action items requested in the alumni petition, we demand that the University commit to:
- Administrative position dedicated to diversity and inclusion: Hire a diversity/inclusion officer or similar position that reports to the president. We wholeheartedly agree that promoting diversity and inclusion should be in everyone’s job description, and we will continue championing that goal, but coordinating these long-term efforts takes a significant time commitment. We strongly feel that having a professional solely dedicated to the administrative side of these efforts will shift some of the burden from trainees.
- Public statement on recruiting underrepresented faculty and trainees: Publicly make a commitment to recruit trainees and faculty from communities underrepresented in science on the university website (appropriate locations would be in the Faculty Recruitment and Graduate Program in Biosciences pages).
- Town hall: Organize a town hall (or series of town halls) for community members to discuss incidents of institutional racism experienced at Rockefeller, to brainstorm ways to address these inequities, and for the administration to be transparent with details on how they are enacting institutional change. Recent examples have occurred at other institutions including Weill Cornell, UCSD, Caltech, and an upcoming vigil hosted by Columbia University Medical Center (this Wednesday at 6:30pm over Zoom).
- Climate survey: Administer and publicly disseminate the results of a new, anonymous campus-wide climate survey that specifically addresses issues of racial inclusivity, discrimination, and bias on campus.
- Inviting speakers from diverse backgrounds: Commit to increase the number of invited speakers for lectures and seminars who are from underrepresented backgrounds. Here, we propose to also create an annual Friday lecture that is centered on the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion in science.
- Annual reporting on HOL mentorship: Require HOLs to complete an annual report on mentorship practices and undergo additional training if they do not actively work toward creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.
- Research relationships with minority-serving institutions: Develop a research training relationship with medical schools, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and other minority-serving institutions (as defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965) across the country. We aim to provide research experiences at Rockefeller laboratories to Black and Native American MD and MD/PhD students, and additionally, retain at least one spot in the SURF program for undergraduate students from HBCUs or other minority-serving institutions.
- Anti-racism, anti-bias in science training: Require a module or class on the implications of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and disability on the history and future of bioscience. This could be incorporated as an extension of the Responsible Conduct of Research course.
- Diversity statements from faculty candidates: Require faculty candidates to provide statements on their past, present, and future contributions to promoting equity, inclusion, and diversity in their professional career.
- Increased diversity in executive team: Development of an institutional plan (with milestones) to increase diversity within Rockefeller’s executive leadership and board of trustees. Increasing diversity amongst the administration will push for decisions to be more inclusive on campus. Current executive leadership and board of trustees are listed here.”
- Rockefeller does not have a diversity/inclusion officer. We commit to evaluating the models utilized by different institutions to promote diversity and inclusion, concluding with our own plan no later than the end of August.
- The University has long published our encouragement for applications from communities underrepresented in science for graduate school and faculty appointments. We will immediately put these statements on display on our public web sites as well.
- We will provide forums and mechanisms to report and discuss incidents of discrimination, bias, and institutional racism at the University and determine actions to address inequities and prevent bias.
- We will administer and disseminate results of an anonymous campus climate survey regarding issues of racial inclusivity, discrimination, and bias.
- We commit to increase the number of invited speakers and seminars from underrepresented backgrounds, and will host a featured annual Friday lecture focused on promoting diversity and inclusion in science.
- Working with the Academic Council of the faculty, we will establish guidelines for annual reporting on HOL mentorship practices and provide further training as warranted.
- We will seek to establish relationships with minority-serving institutions and expand research experiences at Rockefeller labs to BIPOC students from minority-serving institutions.
- We will require training on anti-racism and anti-bias in science through the Responsible Conduct of Research course and evaluate anti-racism and anti-bias training for the broader campus community, including training and interventions tailored to units on campus in which specific problems are identified.
- By the end of August, we will develop a plan to increase diversity at all administrative levels including the executive team and board of trustees.”
For decades, four simple words have been the articulation of hope for people of color who, speaking out against never-ending violence and injustice in their communities, are simply fed up…“No Justice, No Peace!” These four words have been the rallying cry of every protest, march, and assembly of people who simply just want to be heard. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Over the last several decades, countless police shootings of unarmed Black Americans have gone, and continue to go, unchallenged and unpunished by our nation’s law enforcement.
The Origins of Racism in America
To understand the current state of society, you would have to understand our beginnings as Black people in America. The foundational fabric of the United States of America has been rooted and grounded in slavery from the late 1500s until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, where it became unlawful to enslave, own, purchase, or trade another human being as you would commodities. Prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, property law was applied to every Black man, woman, and child—they were stripped of all dignities and human rights and viewed as property such as real estate or land. Blacks were not viewed as people but rather tangible things that could be manipulated and controlled. This mindset made it all too easy for captors, slave “owners,” and oppressors to disassociate themselves from the humanity of Black people. The elements of human nature did not apply to people of color and they were regarded as sub-human. Blacks could not own property, could not vote, and were denied education and basics of life that we sometimes take for granted. In the 2019 movie “Harriet,” the white plantation owner reprimanded the protagonist, Harriet Tubman, for requesting her freedom by “reminding her” that he allowed her to marry a free Black man even though he was denying her petition to also be free. This highlighted the inhumane circumstance that Black people were denied even basic human rights to decide who and when to marry.
In the years leading up to the drafting of the Constitution of the United States in 1789, the notion of slavery, although widely practiced, was a hotly debated topic to the point that the actual word “slavery” was not included anywhere in the official writings. Yet it was implied that slavery would be legally permitted. Legal sanctioning of slavery, in one form or another, has been a part of American culture since its origins.
The Changing Faces of Slavery
Often when people hear the word “slavery” they immediately imagine shackled, kidnapped, beaten Africans being brought over to the “new world” on ships by Europeans crossing the Atlantic. Although this is a true part of American history, this practice has been banned for over 200 years. Africans are no longer brought over in droves to work fields or gins from sunrise to sunset, but make no mistake, modern-day slavery is alive and well. Slavery takes on many forms in the modern-day world such as “debt bondage, child slavery, domestic servitude, forced labor,” and human trafficking. Over forty million people live in some form of slavery worldwide with 1 in 4 being children and 71% being women and girls. The many changing faces of slavery and social injustice today are far too often masked by political strategies and legislation that make it completely legal to oppress and even eradicate Black people. Some of these avenues of oppression are voter suppression, “justified police shootings,” income inequality, unemployment, and lack of affordable housing. In 2018, the poverty rate for Black people in America was 22% compared to 9% for white people and 19% Hispanic people.
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 sent the Black community and people of all races into utter shock whilst enraging many to the point of action. The actions of four police officers brought feelings of frustration, anger, and fear to what is now an absolute boiling point. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is a language of the unheard.” What we are witnessing in our streets and cities is a collective body of people desiring to be heard, desiring policy changes, desiring people of all shades to be regarded as human beings equally. This desire manifests in the form of peaceful protests as well as lawless rioting and looting. For six years, after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement has been working tirelessly to bring acute awareness to the sufferings of Black people, to be that united voice of change…real, sustainable change. Healing and transformation is needed, not just for the Black community but for the world. Oppression and segregation have long-reaching effects and hurt every individual that has blood flowing in their veins. It is these social ills that poison and cripple cultural and economic potential.
The Global Experience
The U.S. is recognized as a world-class leader in power, innovation, entrepreneurship, commerce, immigration, and quality of life. After decades of police brutality, clashes with ill-intended civilian vigilantes, and social injustice against Black people, the question remains: by whose standards is the U.S. a leader? The words of Abraham Lincoln’s campaign speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” still ring boisterously true today. However, we as a nation have somehow forgotten their true meaning. If we say (and believe) that we are world leaders whose actions spark and motivate global reactions, then we collectively have an inherent duty to protect our citizens—each and every one—from division and separatism. By calling uncomfortable matters as they really are and finding sustainable solutions, we can garner the praise that we so relish. As Lincoln revealed, a nation cannot have two sets of differing ideals and expect to be whole. Moreover, it cannot be respected as a leading force if there is chaos within. The world has taken notice and is responding in kind. The BLM movement is sweeping the U.S. and the globe, for what has affected one is now affecting all. People of all races want change; the people want justice for all.
Let us remember:
and countless others…
Gretchen M. Michelfeld
I am ashamed to say, my first attempt to explain white privilege to Beckett was only a few months ago. My son is almost twelve and I have been complacent, you see. I have practiced the complacency of a liberal urban mom who is reassured by the diversity of her neighborhood and schools, who has tried to teach anti-racist lessons from day one, who is pleased that her child has a diverse group of friends, happily accompanies her to protests, and asks for birthday donations to the American Civil Liberties Union.
I am aware of the virtue signaling in my opening paragraph. I am keenly aware of my white fragility: the defensive clinging to a belief in my fundamental goodness and fairness. I want to believe that I have taught Beckett to be good and fair.
But the shock of the recent racist violence in this country that has come into the foreground of white people’s collective consciousness has forced many of us to realize that we cannot talk about the evils of racism without acknowledging the privileges we enjoy. These privileges are a direct result of the perverted notion of white supremacy that first justified the economic calculus of slavery and segregation, and which continues (consciously or not) to dominate the thinking behind countless political and economic decisions every day.
So, while my son and I were taking a masked and socially distanced walk last month, Beckett brought up the horrible murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the young man from Georgia who was out for a jog and was hunted down like an animal by two white men who claimed they thought he was a burglar. “I can’t even understand it, mom,” he said. “How could anyone be that racist and evil?”
My first thought was one of shock and surprise. Frankly, I did not even know he was aware of Arbery. That is some privilege right there—believing I have the luxury of shielding my young male child from the ultimate horrors of racism. My second thought was the realization that solely teaching our white children that racism is immoral and being proud that they do not understand how racist violence is possible, is not doing them or their Black and brown peers any favors. While I recognize that being white has helped me in dozens of situations where I was in a jam and needed help from a stranger, it never occurred to me before that I am actually a complicit cog in the twisted wheel of systemic racism. How many lives has my complacency helped to destroy?
I looked him as much in the eye as I could, though our sweaty fabric masks fogged up our glasses, and I began a conversation about white privilege.
I told him about the time he was six and he pointed a toy gun at two policemen who laughed and pretended he’d shot them. Then I told him about Tamir Rice who was killed by cops the very same year as he also played with a toy gun. I told him about the time I horrified my non-white friends when I opened a bottle of cold brew coffee and took a swig while we waited in the checkout line. “What’s the big deal?” I asked. “I’m gonna pay for it. Do you want some?” “Oh GOD no!” they answered, “We’re good.” I asked him to imagine being a young Black man these days, needing to go to the store and needing to wear a mask. “But people know we all have to wear masks,” Beckett said, “they can’t assume someone is a criminal because he is wearing a mask.”
He had actually hit on an easy-to-explain aspect of white privilege—when you are white, people do not ascribe criminality to your everyday behavior or lethality to your resistance.
I told him that when I’m late for work and running for a bus, I know (if anyone even notices me) that people think, “Oh that poor lady is running late.” I asked him to imagine the decision a Black person must make if they are about to miss the bus. I told him about a Black woman I know who was on her high school track team and was stopped by the cops almost every time she tried to go jogging. I told him about a neighborhood mom he knows, who will not hang out on the corner and chat with friends unless there is at least one white woman in their group. “Why do you think that is?” I asked him. I told him about a political activist we know whose Black husband does not feel comfortable accompanying her when she is knocking on doors to get petitions signed. This was before the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, but I told him about Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Stephon Clark…
“This is like the worst walk ever!” Beckett complained. He cried. He was angry with me. I apologized. I stopped talking.
I worry about overwhelming his already stressed-out-by-coronavirus brain. I worry that I will say exactly the wrong thing and he will tune out forever. I worry that I don’t understand what I’m talking about and that I will make things worse. But I must keep trying. We white people all must.
In an online school assignment last week, Beckett’s music teacher had the class watch five music videos about racism. He didn’t want to talk about them.
Today we are going to talk about them. Today might be too late, but it’s better than never.