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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 02/12/2012

Eulogy for a brilliant mentor and teacher

Here is a eulogy for a pioneering scientist that says more about the lifelong effects of a dynamic teacher on his students than any “value-added” formula ever could.

The eulogy was delivered by Jeffrey Ravetch, head of the Leonard Wagner Laboratory of Molecular Genetics and Immunology at Rockefeller University in New York, at a memorial service last week for his former teacher and mentor, Norton Zinder, a ground-breaking geneticist and microbiologist. Zinder, who was my brother-in-law’s father, died this month at age 83.

In an era in which it is popular to make the assessment of teachers more “scientific” by using mathematical equations to determine a teacher’s worth, Ravetch’s tribute shows just how much of an art the process of teaching and mentoring really is. It’s a human exercise, not a numbers game.

Norton Zinder’s life story was classically inspirational. He was born in New York to parents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. His father valued nothing more than education but could not afford to finish his own. He worked as a children’s dress salesman to feed his family, swearing that he would ensure his children were fully educated. He did.

Obviously brilliant as a child, Norton graduated from the Bronx High School of Science at age 15, and studied day and night to graduate from Columbia University at age 18. Then he joined Joshua Lederberg ’s famous laboratory at the University of Wisconsin as a graduate student. There he led the charge in the discovery of bacterial transduction, a process through which viruses transfer genes from one bacterium to another, one of the principal achievements for which Lederberg was awarded a Nobel Prize.

After earning his PhD, Zinder moved to Rockefeller University, where he continued to play a pivotal role in biological science and genetics over five decades. His research continued to break new ground, and he emerged — along with James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA who became a close friend of Zinder’s — as a highly influential voice on science policy. His leadership of a committee that examined the work of the National Cancer Institute in the 1970s led to a major reorganization of the institute’s research structure.

Meanwhile, Zinder, who could be equally charming and cantankerous, managed to find time to talk to public school teachers about science, and he corresponded with an eighth grader about the youngster’s science project.

Ravetch, in his eulogy below, refers also to Zinder’s role as a founding member, along with Watson, of the Human Genome Project, a project to identify and map all of the approximately 20,000 genes on chromosomes in human cells. He also refers to Marilyn Zinder, Norton’s wife of many years who died in 2004.

Jeffrey Ravetch’s eulogy for Norton Zinder:

Norton was a larger-than-life figure in the scientific careers of his many s tudents during his 50 years at The Rockefeller University, advising, cajoling and reminding us of the impossibly high standards to which we were being held. He expected greatness; he demanded independence, creativity and critical thinking. And, above all, he wanted to see or hear something that was new and exciting. The challenge we all faced was how to say or do something interesting enough to get Norton's attention.

Patience wasn't one of his virtues. It was a common sight to see one of us following Norton down the hall, desperately trying to get him to turn around and listen to what we were saying. It was a place of energy, excitement and competition among peers. In other words, Norton's lab was a training ground for the real world of science we each aspired to conquer.

I was fortunate to have been a student of Norton's in the early ‘70's, a period of great ferment in genetic research. It was a transition period in the field, as we moved from the rigor and elegance of bacterial genetics, the field Norton pioneered and dominated, to the power and simplicity of molecular biology and recombinant DNA.

Norton was somewhat ambivalent about it all in the beginning. I convinced him to let me go up to Boston to learn the then-new technique of DNA sequencing from its inventors and to bring it back to Rockefeller, where DNA sequencing had yet to be introduced. I was eager to apply it to the freezer full of genetic mysteries that Norton had discovered during his career.

Within a few months, I had sequenced many of the phages that Norton had constructed, which provided the basis for that remarkable system of host restriction/modification, soon to be an essential component of recombinant DNA technology. Norton looked at my data and was, to my surprise, irritated.

"Trivial biochemistry," he muttered, and walked away in a huff. What I had unwittingly done was to reduce the elegance of genetics to the triviality of a DNA sequence, a crime in Norton's pure genetic world.

However, it was a testament to Norton's commitment to science that, despite this early reaction to DNA sequencing, he was to become the champion of the Human Genome Project and the complete sequencing of our DNA. Or, as Norton once said to me: "The people who started all this are going to finish it.”

He was one of a kind, a singular, dominant intellect in the genetic revolution.

As my own career developed, I've come to understand and appreciate the enormous influence he’s had on my science. His standards weren't just high, they were nearly unattainable. When it came time to draft my thesis, Norton took me into his office and showed me the thesis he had written as a graduate student working with Josh Lederberg. It was simply a 17-page list of the strains he had constructed that led to his discovery of transduction, one of the three pillars of genetic exchange. I didn't need to be told that anything that I came up with would pale in comparison.

The lesson was clear: it wasn't good enough to be the best in your field. You had to create new fields and, in so doing, change the way everyone else understood the world.

Norton was brilliant, intuitive and often impossibly inscrutable, and for all those reasons he was a towering figure in my life and my career. He was also generous and gracious to those who worked with him, treating us as colleagues and even as members of an extended family. Being a ‘Zinderkinder,’ as he called his students, was more than being a student; it was a life-long bond with Norton and Marilyn.
I'm afraid I took that bond a bit too literally, when, a few years after I had returned to New York to start my own lab, I found myself living down the hall from Norton and Marilyn. One evening, realizing that I  needed to return to the lab to complete an experiment, I availed myself of that family bond with Norton. I left my son, then a few months old, in his care, promising to return in “just a bit.” A few hours later, I returned to find Norton, pacing up and back with a crying infant in his arms. “He cried from the minute you left. None of my children ever did that.” And while we spent the next 30 years talking about science, Rockefeller and life, we never spoke of that evening again.

And when my career eventually led me back to Rockefeller, where I took my place alongside Norton as a colleague at the university, I had the distinct sense that I was closer to understanding who Norton was and what made him inseparable from the institution where he had spent his entire career. While my research interests may have moved into immunology and away from bacterial genetics, I still enjoyed walking into Norton's office to show him some data in the hope that maybe he'd be impressed and find what I was doing interesting.

For, in the end, impressing Norton was what it was all about for many of us who trained in his lab. When I saw him this [past] summer at Cold Spring Harbor, on the occasion of his being celebrated for his contributions to the creation of modern molecular biology, I had the sense that maybe, after all, he approved. And while I will miss him as a mentor and friend, I'm comforted by the knowledge that his accomplishments, his students and his intellect are enduring and will continue to exemplify the very best in science.


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