The Colgate Scene
May 2005

Biotechnology matters

Rudolph Leibel '63, professor of pediatrics and medicine at Columbia University, discussed his research, which proposes a genetic link between obesity and diabetes. [Photos by Rob Bennett]

Harvey Berger '72 graduated from Colgate with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. Today, he is chairman and CEO of ARIAD Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a cancer drug development company that he founded.

Rudolph Leibel '63 majored in English. He now conducts groundbreaking research on obesity and diabetes as a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Columbia University.

Jonah Shacknai '78 studied political science. He launched and now serves as CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., a company that focuses on the treatment of dermatological and podiatric conditions and aesthetics medicine.

They may have followed different paths at Colgate, but the three chose a common course after leaving Hamilton: armed with liberal arts degrees as compasses, they embarked on careers navigating the frontiers of science.

And they are not alone. Growing numbers of graduates, regardless of major, are gaining footholds in scientific fields, as the turnout at the recent Colgate Biotechnology Symposium in New York City proved. The event, said attendees, spotlighted the university's role in producing generations of leaders in science.

Meeting of the minds
During the Feb. 11 gathering, Berger, Leibel, Shacknai, and other recognized biotech leaders -- Gerald D. Fischbach '60, executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculty of medicine at Columbia; Kirk Raab '59, chairman of Connectics Corp.; and Jay Sanders '59, president and CEO of The Global Telemedicine Group -- spoke about their contributions to biotechnology and the high-profile issues of neurotherapeutics, drug discovery, the business of biotechnology, obesity and diabetes, and advances in health care, among others.

The symposium, which featured talks on controversial topics such as stem cell research and the recent recall of FDA-approved drugs, also gave the approximately 240 Colgate alumni, professors, students, parents, and friends in attendance the opportunity for one-on-one discussions about the field of biotechnology. A poster session highlighted collaborative research by Colgate students and professors.

One theme, expressed first by Fischbach in his keynote address and echoed by the panelists, was that academic institutions such as Colgate play a crucial role in advancing research that saves lives and changes the face of medicine. Many said the inclusion of undergraduates in the symposium underlined Colgate's commitment to science and research and illustrated practical opportunities the school provides.

"Anytime a student explains his work -- particularly to someone not acquainted with the research -- it's a good thing," said Jeffrey Buboltz, assistant professor of physics, who asked sophomore Charles Bwalya to discuss their studies of cell membranes. "By presenting posters to a scientifically diverse audience, they were forced to explain things in concise, easily digestible bits, which is good practice. They were also exposed to jobs on both ends of the spectrum -- at universities and in industry. It's great for them to network with people involved with the science and research that goes on outside of academia."

Naveen Hussain made at least one valuable connection as she presented a poster of breast cancer research she conducted during last fall's National Institutes of Health (NIH) Study Group. She had studied the effect of prolactin, a hormone that initiates and sustains lactation. Although she is only a junior, Hussain said she has already been contemplating careers conducting research or "helping people." During the symposium she spoke with Waleed Tadmori, an immunologist and parent of Colgate junior Amer Tadmori, about his occupation and the advantages of working in the lab. "Talking with someone who has been in that setting gave me an idea of what that field is about and what my options are," she said, noting she was surprised that she could communicate her research to everyone there and enjoyed hearing about their careers.

Bwalya added that he learned how well represented Colgate is in biotechnology and other nascent fields. "I was amazed at how many alumni there are in the sciences," he said. "It was confidence-building, talking with people like them, and explaining to them -- and having them understand -- exactly what my work is."

Sophomore Charles Bwalya describes the cell membrane research that he conducted with professor Jeffrey Buboltz, the first biophysicist on the Colgate faculty, at the poster session at the Colgate Biotechnology Symposium in February.

Curiosity and serendipity
The high level of dialogue throughout the day was noted by many in the audience. Jennifer Lewis '93, a research scientist at Ohio State University, said the high points for her were Berger's "approachable lesson in high-throughput screening library" and Fischbach's "moving video of deep brain stimulation therapy for Parkinson's disease." But she said she was also able to enjoy the more casual chats: "I was struck by a sense of collegiality at my luncheon table, where I was surrounded by successful patent attorneys, financiers, and business and government leaders. All attitudes changed when we reminisced about our days at Colgate that collectively spanned at least four decades."

That ability to have meaningful conversations about topics ranging from hard science to politics to education is just one hallmark of the Colgate experience, said Raab, who majored in political science. He said the event confirmed that the university grooms students to be well-rounded leaders, no matter the field: "It gives you two things in particular. It helps you understand your own ignorance, and it stimulates your intellectual curiosity. It's not an easy place, academically and otherwise, so it really toughens your skin. In those ways, I think it prepares you for almost anything that you want to do."

For Daniel Wakeman, the gathering provided something even more practical than a professional direction (he already had his sights set on working in a research lab) or a newfound familiarity with the industry. The senior's study of how sleep apnea affects children's processing of language with Spencer Kelly, assistant professor of psychology, caught the eye of a neurologist and writer staying at the hotel where the symposium was being held. He described his project to David Perlmutter, author of The Better Brain Book and Powerful Therapy for Challenging Brain Disorders, who asked to cite some of Wakeman's research in an upcoming publication.

"It was wild -- I don't know what exactly will come of it, but I figure it can't hurt to have my work mentioned in a book you can buy at," said Wakeman. "The ability to do research at this age is valuable enough. But if ten more people read my name through [Perlmutter's book] and realize that I did this work as an undergraduate, it will definitely help my career."

For conference video web links, visit

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