Director Dr. Aaron Shatkin, right, and former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine research facility in 1988.

CABM TURNS 25: REFLECTIONS

"A Historical Perspective of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine"

JOACHIM MESSING, Dr. rer. nat., ML.
Director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology
University Professor of Molecular Biology
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

I am very pleased to congratulate the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, (CABM), and its director Aaron Shatkin on its 25th anniversary---since it’s opening, an experiment well done. During my recruitment in 1985, the founding of the CABM played a crucial role in my decision to move to Rutgers. My colleagues at Rutgers and the Medical School, President Bloustein, and Vice President Alec Pond of Rutgers had already laid the foundation for a major initiative in the life sciences, and I was fortunate to play a key role in the implementation of their goals. The Waksman Institute of Microbiology (WIM) had previously proposed to the university that Rutgers should catch up with the flourishing advances in the field of Molecular Biology and use a loan against its endowment to build a new wing for the WIM’s old classical building with the clock tower. With this new space the university planned to recruit a molecular biologist, who could utilize the new space and organize a major effort in the life sciences at Rutgers and indirectly at the Medical School. To do this the new wing was completed before my arrival in 1985. Furthermore, President Bloustein persuaded Governor Kean to put on the ballot in the Fall of 1984 a bond issue for capital expansion, which passed by a large margin. I remember that Bloustein personally rang the university bell, reserved for special occasions, because it was a decisive step in the history of higher education in New Jersey. This bond issue provided among other projects the funds for building the CABM and the renovation of the fermentation facility at the WIM.

Still commuting from Minneapolis until the end of the summer of 1985, I served on two CABM-related committees, the search committee for the director and the building committee. The building committee recommended connecting the WIM and the Medical School through the CABM. It was also envisioned that CABM could save space for a major auditorium because of the connection to the WIM auditorium. For the CABM director search, it was clearly a task of finding a target of opportunity rather than a senior scientist volunteering their candidacy. It had to be someone with scientific accomplishments and the drive to build a visible program synergistic with other initiatives at the New Brunswick campus. I recall that I had to take candidates to Roy Vagelos’ office in Rahway. At the time, Roy was CEO of Merck and the chair of the CABM search committee. Because of the strength of the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey and Roy being a scientist himself, it was thought that he could be persuasive in attracting top candidates to consider the directorship.

One of them was Aaron Shatkin of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey. Aaron’s scientific masterpiece was the discovery of mRNA capping, which gave him visibility in the scientific community and made him a top choice for quality faculty recruitment. Because Aaron earlier had given a seminar in Minneapolis, where I came from, I was able to meet him before he became a candidate. I found in Ron Morris, a prominent scientist in the Medical School, who was also on the search committee, an ally who also favored Aaron as the top candidate. When I made it as a condition to Alec Pond that I would come if Aaron was selected, he agreed and persuaded President Bergen and Dean Reynolds of the Medical School and President Bloustein of Rutgers to go along with this choice.

To catalyze recruitment, I also needed to demonstrate that it was possible to attract an established molecular biologist to Rutgers. Therefore, I began to search for a senior appointment at WIM before my arrival and the search for a CABM director. Indeed, I was able to successfully persuade Dan Klessig to join us, after we spent some time together on the east coast of Japan, following the International Virology Congress in Sendai in the Fall of 1984. Dan was one of the first scientists to discover mRNA splicing while at Cold Spring Harbor, giving him a perfect role as a faculty recruiter as well. It could have been a tipping point for Aaron Shatkin to join us in this adventure. Dan and I developed a concept plan for the CABM with four major areas, one of them being structural biology. When Aaron came on board, he followed this plan with great vigor. Indeed, we first focused on structural biology because of the high cost of start-up equipment, which was possible because of the new bond issue. Moreover, as part of the renovation of the fermentation plant at WIM, we configured the space above it as an X-ray diffraction suite. Another renovation we made to aid faculty recruitment in the life sciences was the construction of a computing lab on the top floor of the old wing in WIM. It had air temperature control, a VAX computer, which had the capacity of today’s laptops, but at a price of thousands of them, and a raised floor to permit easy installation of cables, all under the direction of Greg Hamm, who came from the EMBL laboratory in Heidelberg and was the first to establish a nucleotide sequence data bank.

It was an interesting period and there are many anecdotes one could tell about scientists checking out our place whether it was for real. One of the first recruitments in macromolecular crystallography was Eddy Arnold, who got space with Aaron on the second floor of the new wing of WIM. Aaron brought from Roche Stan Stein as a specialist in protein sequencing, who set up a protein biochemistry service facility on the first floor, while Dan and I occupied the third floor. Because faculty at CABM and WIM had their tenure in departments at the Medical School or Rutgers, faculty recruitment played an important role in building molecular biology there as well to attract outside funding and to provide an exciting curriculum for students. I am saying this not only because of the vision of the university leadership to use centers and institutes as catalysis for new scholarly initiatives, but also to create a new image of New Jersey, as a place to be. As Governor Kean used to say, “New Jersey and you, perfect together!”. Without CABM, this would not have been possible, and we should take the 25th anniversary of its founding as an opportunity to celebrate it and its leadership’s accomplishments.