WHITEHEAD INSTITUTE DIRECTOR DAVID C. PAGE
David Page understands what Whitehead can do for talented young scientists. He arrived here in 1984 as the Institute’s first Whitehead Fellow. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he established an independent research program with Whitehead funds and began publishing groundbreaking studies on the Y chromosome.
After becoming a Whitehead Member in 1986, Page continued to make important discoveries about sex determination. He was appointed a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. He also received the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship (1986), the Searle Scholar’s Award (1989), the Amory Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1997), and the Curt Stern Award from the American Society of Human Genetics (2003). His scientific prowess and thoughtful nature made him an ideal candidate to assume Whitehead’s directorship. After a year of interim service in the post, he was officially elected Director in December 2005.
MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR
In praise—and pursuit—of unlearning
From time to time, it bears remembering that as scientists, we never actually prove anything. Rather, we are in the business of disproving. We don’t gather facts. We construct models that explain how the universe works, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, once we construct a model, we must begin to destroy it.
It’s a messy process but an essential one. We can too easily become attached to our models, putting scientific progress at risk. Had we not challenged some of the most seemingly compelling models of our recent history, we might still believe that the vast majority of the human genome is composed of “junk DNA” that’s merely along for the ride. It turns out the so-called non-coding elements comprising that “junk” are pretty important. We might also simply have accepted the longstanding dogma that cell differentiation—the journey of embryonic stem cell to specialized adult cell—is strictly a one-way street. Such acquiescence might have prevented the discovery that is induced pluripotency. The reprogramming that sends adult cells back to an embryonic-like pluripotent state is one of the most significant breakthroughs in modern biology.
At the core of this constructive deconstruction is unlearning, that relatively rare ability to dismiss willingly and completely that which we have held to be true. For many, it is an unnatural action, one that almost always requires abandoning considerable investments of time and energy. As renowned science fiction author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov famously stated: “It’s not so much what you have to learn if you accept weird theories, it’s what you have to unlearn.”
At Whitehead Institute, we willingly embrace the weird theories because we are a faculty of accomplished unlearners. We select for people who have the interest and ability to systematically unlearn, and this approach invariably pays off. During 2014, for example, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) honored Whitehead Member David Sabatini with the NAS Award in Molecular Biology. David became the fifth of our Members to earn this prestigious award, which recognizes a recent notable discovery in molecular biology by a young scientist. Another of our young scientists, Jing-Ke Weng, was named a 2014 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. It’s a wonderful accolade for Jing-Ke and further validation of our eye for emerging talent. If form holds, Silvi Rouskin, a new Whitehead Fellow we recruited to the Institute at the close of 2014, is facing a very bright future.
We will encourage Silvi to revel in unlearning because, when faced with a vexing problem, we here at Whitehead Institute approach it from—as is the theme of this report—another angle. We do so because scientific leadership demands it. The pages that follow capture the many different angles our scientists took over the past year as well as the advances and accolades that ensued. It’s an inspiring collection made possible by the creativity of our researchers and the enormous support of staff, faculty, and friends—all of whom I’m grateful to say believe in the power of unlearning.
David C. Page
Whitehead Institute Director David C. Page