It's a party: Institute of Molecular Biology celebrates 50 years

The University of Oregon's Institute of Molecular Biology -- born in the same decade of Crick and Watson's discovery of DNA's double helix and a veritable revolution in biology -- is 50 years old. To mark the anniversary, 19 former students and postdoctoral fellows who went on to forge successful careers are returning to campus Oct. 23-24 to celebrate at a special symposium.

The institute is an interdisciplinary research community of UO scientists who probe biological questions on a microscopic playing field of molecules. Its 23 active members come from biology, chemistry and physics. Their findings today often find their way into pharmaceutical and biomaterial applications. Molecular biology emerged in the 1930s but rose amid discoveries of the 1950s, leading eventually to scientific techniques that allowed the completion of the map of the human genome.

"It is indeed a privilege and very interesting to be organizing the 50th anniversary of IMB, by virtue of my current status as IMB director," said Bruce Bowerman, a professor of biology, who is in his fifth year as director.

"I kind of pale in comparison to my predecessors, so it is a bit odd to be so responsible for planning this," he said, "but I've consulted with past directors extensively throughout and with other long-term faculty. It has been very interesting to sit down and have lunch or otherwise interact with them and learn first-hand about some of their experiences and successes and fondness for each other. It truly is a remarkable story and fascinating to get so close to it."

Peter von Hippel, Rick Dahlquist and Tom Stevens, as well as founding director Aaron Novick, served longer periods as director than has Bowerman.

Novick brought the emerging field of molecular biology to Oregon. He founded the institute with four members including himself upon his arrival in 1959 after he was recruited from his already leading-edge research at the University of Chicago.

Novick, born in 1919, was a prominent chemist in the Manhattan Project, which led to the atomic bombs that ended World War II. After the war, he was lured into molecular biology by the challenges the new field offered. Novick led the UO's institute into international prominence. He retired in 1984 from the UO and remained in Eugene. He died in December 2000.

In 2005, Novick posthumously won the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon's Pioneer Award for his scientific contributions for founding the UO institute, believed to have been the first academic unit in the world to formally include "molecular biology" as part of its name.

"Molecular biology got going in earnest in the 1940s," Bowerman said, "but it is probably safe to say it became a major presence upon the publication of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson. I suppose the 1960s were viewed as its golden era, when the genetic code was deciphered, with our George Streisinger being one of the early contributors to cracking that code. The new genomic era that we are in now is really the first time people have felt like the excitement of molecular biology research matches those early days again. We are in a new golden era, and IMB is still going strong."

The two-day IMB birthday celebration starts Friday night, Oct. 23, with an invitation-only banquet. On Saturday, the public is welcome to attend, free of charge, any of the sessions, which begin at 9 a.m. and end at 6:30 p.m. The 19 scheduled speakers, who are coming from 14 institutions, have had close educational ties to the UO Institute of Molecular Biology.

Saturday's talks will be held in Room 100 of Willamette Hall, 1371 E. 13th Ave. The talks are expected to be scientific in nature but with some remembrances of life at the institute, Bowerman said. Morning sessions will begin at 9 and 11:10 a.m. Afternoon sessions will begin at 2:15, 4:35 and 6 p.m. The four speakers in the 4:35 session were UO undergraduates whose careers were launched by their early exposure to research in the institute.

The final talk at 6:05 p.m. will be a keynote address by Carol Gross of the University of California, San Francisco, who earned her doctorate under Novick's supervision and later served as a research associate with von Hippel, who will introduce her. Gross was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992.

Box lunches will be available for attendees who request one before Oct. 14 by calling 541-346-3236. Saturday's lunch break will be from about 12:35 p.m. to 2:15 p.m.

A complete schedule of Saturday's speakers is available here.