by Mayla Hsu
What was it like to start graduate school at RU during the Kennedy administration? I had a glimpse of the past when I spoke to Nicholas H. Acheson, RU Class of 1969, who is now an Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at McGill University. In a wide-ranging conversation, Acheson, a tall, erudite gentleman, reminisced about student life in a pioneering scientific university, among path-breaking scientists doing research that would launch entirely new fields of inquiry and earn multiple Nobel Prizes. New York City during the social upheavals of the 1960s formed a backdrop.
Acheson, 71, was at Harvard University doing a senior year project in James Watson’s lab, when he first learned of newly discovered viruses that infect bacteria, known as bacteriophages (or “phages”). The new phages were a curiosity because they use RNA—not DNA—as their genetic material, so understanding them illuminated an entirely new form of life. As Acheson began thinking about graduate school, RNA phages had been recently isolated from the sewers of New York City and described by Norton Zinder at RU, which prompted Acheson to become interested in RU’s graduate school. During the admissions process, he interviewed with then-President Detlev Bronk, and remembers barely getting a word in edgewise as Dr. Bronk enthused about various subjects like Greek philosophy and the graduate program. As a driving force behind establishing the graduate school at RU, which saw its first graduating class in 1959, Bronk saw students as instrumental in shaking up the hierarchy of science and research, making it sound like a very appealing place to study.
The summer after graduating, Acheson went to Chiapas, Mexico, to work on a project in ethnobiology, and met many students from New York. They were lively, intense people who made NYC sound like an exhilarating place to be. He arrived on the RU campus in the fall of 1963, which was an extraordinary time to be studying science at RU because the molecular biology revolution had begun. There were new tools available to identify and study specialized structures of cells and to more thoroughly decipher how DNA and RNA encoded proteins. Since viruses parasitize cells and exploit their replication in order to reproduce, they too could be used to understand the fundamentals of life. It felt like a time when exciting new things were just about to be discovered.
Acheson recalls that students were given a great deal of support and attention from professors, and were immediately accepted as junior partners in their labs. They were free to take classes, read scientific journals, and try possible thesis projects that might not always succeed. Although he began projects on poliovirus and chikungunya virus, he dropped these studies early on. By his second year, he took a cell biology course taught by George Palade, the pioneer of electron microscopy (EM), who was using it to study subcellular structure. As President Bronk had hoped, students brought together labs that previously did not interact. After being inspired by the potential of EM, Acheson chose a project bringing together the interests of Igor Tamm, his Ph.D. supervisor, a medical virologist, with those of Palade: studying a newly isolated RNA alphavirus called Semliki Forest virus (SFV). SFV grows in chick embryos, and after preparing thin sections of infected cells, Acheson used EM to photograph the virus nucleocapsids (similar to the shell casings) assembling in the cytoplasm, and developed techniques to describe the biochemistry of the virus. These descriptions of virus growth became his thesis project and led to several publications.
“We would talk to each other a lot, student-student interactions…There was a lot of cross-fertilization that happened, that hadn’t before the Ph.D. program was brought in.” He fondly recalls working on the fifth floor of Founder’s Hall, one floor below the ultracentrifuges housed in Alexis Carrell’s former lab, which was lit by skylights from the days when Carrell did not allow any light bulbs, as he believed that research was optimally carried out by natural light. The lab also kept a goose on the sixth floor as a source of red blood cells for hemagglutination assays, a fast quantitative assay for virus.
There was no rush to finish graduate school, and academic life was perhaps more contemplative than it is now. Life experience was appreciated, even if it meant time away from research. Tamm, an Estonian who had escaped World War II by hiding on a coal barge to Sweden, suffered lifelong effects from breathing coal dust, and because of his health, he valued the richness of life. So he approved when, in the summer of 1964, Acheson took four months away from his Ph.D. program to study German at the Goethe Institute near Munich, followed by travel in Europe. And in 1967, after an animal behavior course, Acheson went to Uganda to study Colobus monkeys, visiting the actual Semliki Forest where the virus he was studying was discovered, all with the blessing of his professors and the university. “Detlev Bronk really felt that once a student was there, they were going to be nurtured and helped and developed into a full human being, not just a scientist. He was a pretty special kind of person.”
Science communication was slower in the 1960s than now, and was accomplished mostly through the professors’ phone networks, attending seminars and conferences, and sitting to read entire issues of journals as they arrived. The volume of information was lower, and time could be spent thoroughly reading and thinking about science articles as they were published. Newspapers—not TV—were an important means of learning what was happening in the outside world. Acheson comments that “science has evolved such that you are all the time writing grants and publishing papers, and have a big lab with a lot of postdocs and have to churn out a certain number of papers per year. Everything is very high-pressure, so it’s very difficult to find the time or to be the kind of person who appreciates mentoring on a person-to-person basis. It’s changed.”
Looking back, Acheson remembers a science-focused life on the RU campus for students, who were housed on the campus and served breakfast and dinner in the Abby Aldrich Dining Hall by young black women dressed in white uniforms, which “sounds like another century.” (It was another century!) It was here that students and staff, together, in shock, watched TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination, “a devastating blow for people my age, and of course others as well.” Lunches were served in Founder’s Hall, where, seated at long tables, students ate for free with professors, and during this time, had many scientific exchanges and made lifelong friendships. One professor arranged for free tickets to dress rehearsals of the Metropolitan Opera, which were held midday during the work week and which Acheson enthusiastically attended.
After a year in RU student housing, Acheson and his roommate decided it was too confining to eat, sleep, and work on campus, so they moved to the Lower East Side to “a crappy apartment,” which was a completely different environment from RU. He remembers sometimes seeing the poet Allen Ginsberg in his neighborhood, and went to hear Miles Davis perform. He was a fan of a band called The Fugs (“whose name was like the other word”), who performed political and satirical rock. Watching belly dancers at a Turkish restaurant was an occasional diversion. A New York experience not commonly associated with RU research was the familiarity Acheson developed with night court, to reduce the numerous parking tickets he acquired from street parking violations. (Because professors used the electron microscope during the day, students used it late into the night, and he frequently overslept and missed the 9 a.m. deadline to move the car.)
New York City in the 1960s was a time of cultural upheaval, and many RU students were politically engaged. Acheson was in a discussion group that published a student newspaper about the Vietnam War, and they investigated RU investments and the support of big business for the war. “We were very aware, [and were] in a bit of a rebellious mood. That’s what was going on.” He found time to electioneer for Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1964 election campaign against Barry Goldwater, “who said bomb the hell out of them, with nuclear bombs—that was his policy. He was a kind of an anti-intellectual, inspired fear in a lot of people like me.” Acheson remembers 1968 as a particularly tumultuous year, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, police attacking demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Mayor Daley saying, “f**k you” on national TV. The defiant spirit of his class prevailed up until the end. At commencement, some graduating RU students— Acheson thinks he was one—wore “Stop ABM” (anti-ballistic missiles) buttons on their gowns. In his address to the crowd, the president said that some students had requested that commencement be “devoted to what they regard as more socially important or relevant matters than science,” but that request was denied.
By the end of his studies, Acheson felt ready to leave, and was well-prepared to move on with molecular biology techniques he had learned at RU. After a postdoctoral fellowship in Switzerland, he went on to direct his own lab studying tumor formation by polyoma viruses at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he has now retired. He has written a textbook, Fundamentals of Molecular Virology (John Wiley & Sons), which is now in its second edition and is aimed at senior-level undergraduate students. Looking back, Acheson says that student life at RU was a formative and happy time. “We were given a great education and also enjoyed life at the same time. It’s a great luxury, but that’s what life is all about, right?” And while scientists come and go, research is forever. Fifty years after a young graduate student took the first pictures of Semliki Forest virus in an electron microscope, that virus is still studied, serving as a model for pathogenic alphaviruses, vaccine development, and in gene therapy for cancer.