keystone symposia

Broadening the discussion

By Bill Knief

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Anyone who still buys into the popular notion that our small, rural community is trapped in some quirky, fatalistic time warp paying perpetual lip service to the past is in for a big surprise.

Thanks to a collaborative effort between the Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology, The Harwood Museum and UNM-Taos, Dr. Leroy Hood, the highly recognized geneticist and systems biologist, is delivering a free public lecture Thursday February 24 at the Harwood’s beautiful new multi media theatre.

Dr. Hood, recognized throughout the world scientific community for his research in molecular immunology, biotechnology and genomics, was instrumental in the creation of the DNA gene sequencer and synthesizer, and the protein synthesizer and sequencer which, according to the website for the Institute for Systems Biology, “comprise the technological foundation for contemporary molecular biology. In particular, the DNA sequencer has revolutionized genomics by allowing the rapid automated sequencing of DNA, which played a crucial role in contributing to the successful mapping of the human genome during the 1990’s.”

Biologist and UNM-Taos Dean of Instruction Jim Gilroy recalled that “When the human genome project was starting back in the early 1990’s they said it was going to be 20 years before we had the whole human genome decoded, and it was because of Dr. Hood’s discoveries in DNA sequencing that it was done in half the time and almost half the budget that they had originally anticipated.”

Dr. Hood’s lifelong contributions to biotechnology have earned him numerous recognitions and awards, including the 2004 Biotechnology Heritage Award, the 2002 Kyoto Prize, the Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment, and many others. In 2007 he was elected to the Inventors Hall of Fame (he holds 14 patents) and has published more than 600 peer-reviewed papers and has coauthored numerous books.

Dr. Martinez Hewlett, Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona; Area Coordinator and Science Lecturer at UNM-Taos, explained how this phenomenal individual came to speak in Taos.

“We are uniquely placed because we have a branch of a major university here in Taos. Dr. Andy Robertson, the science director for the Keystone Symposia, asked us a year ago if there might be some way that we could collaborate, particularly with students. He has a very keen interest in what we call “broadening the discussion”. Keystone is typically a very high level scientific meeting, inviting a very small number of people .The speakers are all cutting edge researchers in their fields. I have been attending Keystone Symposia since graduate school—even before they started holding them in the early 80’s in Taos. Their idea is to come together for their sessions and form a community, and Andy’s idea is that that community needs to be broadened. Involve younger scientists, even students. So Andy and I and Dean Gilroy met and formulated a two prong interaction: the student seminar and a public lecture.

“I have a group of six students who’ve been preparing, by reading scientific papers by specific faculty members who are presenting at the symposia, to interact with presenters and attend the lectures. We’ve been meeting in the evening at my house. We sit around the fireplace, my wife makes cake and we have coffee and tea and talk science. It has been delightful, and there has been fairly good interest around the country in what we are doing. Then at the end of the week we arrange a luncheon with students and researchers so that they can meet and interact one on one. Then the students pick a topic and write a term paper, and that concludes their work for the three credit course.

“The second component is the public lecture. Dr. Hood’s topic will be The Coming Revolution in Medicine: What it Means For You. He is now the President of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, and Lee was one of the principle players in the human genome project. He will be delivering the closing keynote address for Keystone on neurodegenerative diseases before giving the public lecture at the Harwood.

“The whole idea of systems biology grew out of the genome project—the knowledge that we are more than just the pieces of DNA that make us up. We are a system of interacting parts, and Dr. Hood has been one of the leaders in moving biology in that philosophical direction.”

The free lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday February 24 at the Harwood auditorium. Seating is limited and it is recommended that attendees arrive early.

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