Cloning, the differences between MIT and the California Institute of Technology, and the pros and cons of being a university administrator were among the topics tossed around at MIT on March 23 by former faculty member David Baltimore, currently in his fourth year as Caltech's president.
Dr. Baltimore, who was awarded the Nobel Prize at age 37 for his work in virology, was invited to campus by the Biology Undergraduate Student Association (BUSA). He met casually with faculty, biology graduates and undergraduates and delivered the 2001 Howard Hughes Lecture on "The Many Facets of NF-Kappa3" to a full house in Rm 10-250.
After having coffee with faculty members, Dr. Baltimore met with mostly first-year graduate students and later had lunch with around 20 undergraduates. While chatting on a range of subjects, he said he believes the scientific community needs to make it plain that cloning is "OK to do with mice and learn from it, but it's much too early to do with humans."
He talked with graduate students about the potential positives of commercializing research discoveries. "We're spending public money and they're looking for the spinoffs" that will improve their lives, he said. Dr. Baltimore told the graduate students that Caltech, about one-quarter MIT's size, is extremely focused on crossing departmental lines to create cross-disciplinary research subjects and teams.
He said he never thought he wanted to be an administrator ("I never wanted to start wearing ties") until as a researcher at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA in the 1960s, he saw that "institutions were critical to science. The stability and management of an institution provided the framework for doing science. Without institutions, science can't exist."
Nevertheless, he later added, "I think the rewards from doing research are the deepest rewards any human being can have." Dr. Baltimore maintains a 10-person laboratory at Caltech.
Called the most influential biologist of his generation, Dr. Baltimore has influenced national science policy on recombinant DNA research and AIDS. His areas of expertise span research, education, administration and public support of science and engineering.
At MIT, Dr. Baltimore's early investigations focused on how cancer-causing RNA viruses manage to infect healthy cells. One result of this research was the identification of the enzyme reverse transcriptase, hypothesized but considered far-fetched until June 1970, when Baltimore and Caltech alumnus Howard Temin published back-to-back papers about their independent and simultaneous identification of the enzyme.
Drs. Baltimore and Temin and former Caltech faculty member Renato Dulbecco (for other virological research) shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery, which has greatly expanded scientists' understanding of retroviruses such as HIV.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 4, 2001.