Bruce Stillman: Scientist. Leader. Father

In Bruce Stillman’s spacious office overlooking Cold Spring Harbor, photos of his travels and his family crowd the tops of cabinets, revealing the life of a scientist and administrator (though he doesn’t like that word) who works to balance children and wife with a busy professional life. A laboratory, where he continues his own research, is in the same building within the 110-acre campus of the world-renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Dr. Stillman, 56, is president of the Laboratory, and director of its Cancer Center. A native of Australia, he arrived in 1979 as a post-doctoral student. In 1994, he succeeded Dr. James D. Watson as director and in 2003 became president of the Laboratory, where more than 400 scientists work and another 8,000 visit each year. Finding treatments for cancer and other diseases is now a major aim of the molecular biology and genetics research at the Laboratory.

Could you explain the research you do in your own lab?
Each cell in our body has DNA, which makes up our genome. What I have been doing most of my career is understanding how that entire genetic material is duplicated every time a cell divides in two. The double helix needs to separate and replicate itself, and then each daughter cell has to get a complete set of the genome. We have figured out the process of how that occurs. We have billions of cells every day that are dividing.

Why are they dividing?
All your blood cells have to replenish and the neurons in your brain have to be replaced. Your skin cells are constantly growing. When people have chemotherapy, the vast majority of the drugs kill cancer cells.

But they also hit the healthy cells?
That’s why you have side effects from these drugs. That’s why you often lose hair, because you are constantly making new hair cells. We’re working on the control of this whole cell division thing.

How does that translate to applications for people getting chemo?
One of the things we are studying is how to target therapy directly into cancer cells. That would be targeting not with chemicals but with antibodies against the cancer cells.

How long do you think it will be before we can cure cancer, if we can?
One of the things we’ve recognized is that in even one kind of cancer, like breast cancer, there are maybe five or six different types, and they vary from one patient to another. So we now have about 250 different diseases instead of one. There are some, like chronic myeloid leukemia, CML, that can be treated very effectively now. It’s going to be whittling away, one by one.

And how long will it take?
It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time, and I don’t want to predict when. I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m optimistic.

What are some other research projects at Cold Spring Harbor?

Cancer, neuroscience and plant life are the three major areas. We started a new program last year called quantitative biology, which is really mathematics. In neuroscience, the focus is on cognitive disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia. We do research on how the brain works, and how cells in the brain communicate with one another, how we think, how we make decisions, how we pay attention, because these are things that go wrong in some of the cognitive disorders.

How has this research been applied?
I think our biggest impact has been in the autism area. Before Michael Wigler [a scientist at the Laboratory] started working on autism, the causes of autism weren’t really known. What Mike discovered is that children often have mutations in their DNA that are not present in their parents, so these are mutations that are not inherited but were caused during the union of the egg and sperm. Mike found that a sizeable number of children with autism have these spontaneous mutations.

Some people think that getting certain immunizations can be a cause. Is that true?
No. This is from one paper that was published in the 1980s that has now been shown to be fraudulent. But a lot of people picked up on this, including some very prominent celebrities. In fact, it’s dangerous not to be vaccinated.

Do you see yourself as an administrator?
That sounds like an accountant. This position is not just heading an institution on Long Island, but playing a role in the national scientific enterprise and beyond that. And I get involved in Long Island issues, in economic development and in the alliance we have with Brookhaven Laboratory and Stony Brook University trying to find synergies in research. And I have two kids. That’s important.

Tell me more about that.
It’s a very tough life, science and family. It’s a tough life being a scientist, period, and then if you’re the president of an institution, doing other things, it does place a big burden on one’s family life. My children are 27 and 24, a boy and a girl. She’s a teacher in the South Bronx. My son is in real estate. My wife, Grace, is director of a foundation.

Why did you decide to stay on Long Island?

The science was going very well. I came here on a fellowship, and then I was given a faculty position, and then I met Grace.

Was it difficult to take over from James Watson, who is such a luminary?
It was difficult. Jim is an absolutely unique person, and has been phenomenally successful in multiple areas. It would be impossible for anybody to replace Jim. Jim is irreplaceable.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.