Profile: Lee Hartwell

Person with mustache and short hair wearing a black collared shirt.

Leland Hartwell ’64

Magasanik Lab

Director, Biodesign Pathfinder Center

One of my first recollections of graduate school at MIT was being called into a room with all the department heads to justify why I wanted to change departments. Salvodore Luria, Jack Buchanan, and Cyrus Levinthal were seated while I stood making my case.  It was a bit intimidating but they accepted my reason. At the time, MIT had divided biology into several small departments, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Biophysics. I had applied to and been accepted to Biochemistry thinking that Boris Magasanik would be in that department. In fact, he was in Microbiology. I chose MIT as a graduate school for two reasons.  I wanted to work with Boris and my undergraduate research advisor, Bob Edgar, had recommended MIT as a graduate school.  Boris let graduate students find their own thesis project which at the time, I thought derelict but Jack Buchanan informed me that it was designed to help students become independent. I later modelled the same approach with my own graduate students. As an undergraduate at Cal Tech, I had the good fortune of being able to do research every semester so all I needed was an idea.  The graduate student class was small and I learned from one of my fellow students, that Cy Levinthal had obtained a new compound that inhibited RNA synthesis. Cyrus was willing to share his actinomycin D and I rather quickly launched into a project using it to study the metabolism of the messenger RNA for histidase, an enzyme prominent in Boris’s research.  Boris was a wonderful advisor.  He would come by every day to discuss my research.  Of course, I wanted to have a new result each time he came by so I kept a rapid pace.  Only in hindsight did I realize what a unique powerhouse of molecular biology MIT was at that early period in the field and how fortunate I was to be in that intellectual environment.  My training at Cal Tech and MIT had brought me into contact with people who were asking big questions.  When I was preparing to find a place to do postdoctoral research I assumed that I should take on something that was a big problem and I chose cell division.

~ Leland Hartwell, Director, Biodesign Pathfinder Center; Professor, School of Sustainability and School of Education, Arizona State University