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Q&A with 2022 George W. Beadle Award winner, former Princeton president Shirley Tilghman

<h6>Former University President Shirley Tilghman.</h6>
<h6><strong>Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy</strong> <a href="https://sheroars.princeton.edu/speaker/shirley-m-tilghman/" target="_self"><strong>via Office of Communications</strong></a></h6>
Former University President Shirley Tilghman.
Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy via Office of Communications

Former Princeton University president and Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs Emerita Shirley Tilghman was selected on Jan. 24 by the Genetics Society of America to receive the 2022 George W. Beadle Award. 

The award, established in 1999 and named in honor of American geneticist and Nobel Prize laureate George Wells Beadle, is given annually to scientists who have made outstanding contributions to the community of genetics researchers. 

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Tilghman is the first University affiliate to be honored with the award. According to a statement by the Genetics Society of America, she is receiving the award for her “outstanding contributions to the community of genetics researchers,” specifically in her role on the National Advisory Council for the Human Genome Project Initiative, which successfully mapped and sequenced the entire human genome. The organization also recognized Tilghman’s “pioneering contributions” to mammalian imprinting, the phenomenon referring to the expression of a gene depending upon the sex of the parent who passed it on. 

Tilghman sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss her thoughts on the award, her genetic research , and the influence of the University on her career. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

The Daily Princetonian: Congratulations on winning the George W. Beadle Award. To start off, how do you feel about winning this award and what is its significance for you?

Shirley Tilghman: For me, the most important significance is that I was nominated by two of the people who have trained in my laboratory, and that makes it really meaningful. One of them, Marisa Bartolomei, is a professor at [the University of] Penn[sylvania] now and the other one, Tamara Caspary, is a professor at Emory [University]. And they were both wonderful members of my lab in the 1990s. 

I think the other thing that I really appreciate is that the award came in recognition of public service — you’re a Princetonian so you know how important public service is — and the award I think more than anything else was recognizing the work I’ve done to try and make the scientific enterprise as welcoming as possible to all comers and make it one where you can really have a very happy and productive career.

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DP: You’re one of the most prominent geneticists in the country right now. What role do you think Princeton has played in your success as a scientist today?

ST: Princeton has played an absolutely critical role in my success. You know, it gave me a home where I had the most extraordinary colleagues in the faculty. And I have this incredible privilege of training such amazing students. The environment, the aspiring to excellence, which is what I’ve always loved about Princeton, that it tries to do just an unlimited number of things, but it tries to do them as well as possible. I felt that very keenly when I arrived here, and I felt immensely supported by the University at every turn. In fact, I’m not sure I’d be having this conversation with you about an award had I not come to Princeton in 1986. 

DP: So you’ve made contributions to biology and you’ve made contributions to the University community when you were the president. In your own opinion, what contribution have you made that is the most meaningful to you?

ST: You know, the 12 years I spent as president were just simply extraordinary years, where I was able to focus on improving Princeton and its standing in the world then and most importantly, the quality of the research and teaching that it does. That was a huge privilege to have that responsibility for 12 years and certainly is the highlight of my career. But I would say until I took that job, I thought I had the best job in the world. I thought being a scientist at Princeton University — you know, how could anyone ever want to do anything other than that? I adored science and I adored doing it at Princeton. So it’s impossible for me to rank them, they’re unrankable. 

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DP: What about your service to the field of genetics?

ST:  I do believe that I made a really important contribution to the design of the Human Genome Project. Of all the aspects of the project [...], it is the inclusion of model organisms as an integral part of the project [that I’m associated most with]. So basically, using the genomes of everything from simple bacteria all the way through to mice, which I worked on, to learn how to sequence well enough, and fast and cheap enough that we could actually then do the human genome in the space of three or four years. But instead of beginning with the human where we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, learning how to do this well and cheaply and fast by sequencing all these model organisms — I think [that] was the contribution to the whole project that people associate with me. 

The other public service that I feel passionate about is the work that I’ve done over 30 years in trying to promote the careers of young scientists, and to ensure that the scientific enterprise is functioning in a way that makes it possible for young people who love science as much as I do, to have a clear path to becoming a scientist through their training and through their early careers. And I’ve done a huge amount of work on this issue over the years, and I care about it deeply.

DP: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who have an interest in science and in biology and genetics specifically?

ST: Yeah, I think my advice would be to try and get your hands dirty as early as possible. There are many, many studies that show that the earlier you can actually get into a laboratory — not a teaching laboratory, I’m talking about a research laboratory — and find out what it is like to do science, the more likely it is that you will be bitten by the bug, which is what happened to me when I was an undergraduate. I worked in faculty research labs, published papers, and at that point, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. So getting early experience because unfortunately, what happens in too much of science education — though happily, not so much at Princeton — but in many places, is that science education becomes a process of memorizing facts and doing problem sets. And as important as those two things are, they are not what being a scientist is all about. You know, being a scientist is doing it. So I really believe in the apprentice model.

DP: What do you envision as the future of your career as a scientist?

ST: Since I left Nassau Hall, which was in 2013, I’ve been working to take advantage of the knowledge that I gained in both of my roles as scientist and as president to help other organizations. So I’m on a number of nonprofit boards. Some are universities, some are science organizations like the Simons Foundation. Through that kind of public service, I want to ensure that the support of science and the support of good higher education is accessible and as cost-effective as possible for the students. That’s how I’ve been spending my time.

Mahya Fazel-Zarandi is a staff writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached by email at mahyaf@princeton.edu or on Twitter @MahyaFazel.

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