by Dulguun Amgalan
The first time I went to a Harvey lecture I briefly thought I was in the wrong place. It was around 7:30 PM at the Rockefeller University, I found myself in a graceful hall with rich oak floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and stunning modern artwork. Dim lights and tabletop candles gave the place a very warm feel. It was full of people cheerfully chatting together, wine glasses in their hands, and it all looked like some sort of stand-up reception. Little did I know that this was the place where lecture-goers can enjoy delicious beverages and hors d’oeuvres and socialize with other New York scientists before the evening’s main event: a one hour lecture on a cutting-edge biomedical research topic presented by a leading scientist in the field.
The Harvey Society lecture series is an annual series of seven talks given by leading biomedical researchers around the world. Undoubtedly one of the most prestigious in the country, the Harvey lecture series is open to the public and attracts hundreds of scientists from the New York metropolitan area. Most Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine have presented Harvey lectures including, most recently, Martin Chalfie (2012), Ralph M. Steinman (2010), Shinya Yamanaka (2009) and Craig Mello (2008).
The lectures are held once a month in the Caspary Auditorium at Rockefeller University. After warming up with wine, cheese and lively discussion about the upcoming lecture the audience moves to the adjacent Auditorium. This building is a beautifully designed geodesic dome that stands out as a looming black half-sphere against a backdrop of century-old London plane trees and well-tended grounds of the campus. Inside the dome, one cannot help but look up and around in awe at this interesting architecture. All in all, the venue certainly does justice to this distinguished event.
The first talk of this year’s lecture series was by Clifford J Tabin on “the development and evolution of vertebrate morphology”. He is a professor and chair of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Tabin has made significant discoveries in the genetics of developmental biology particularly on vertebrate morphology. He and his coworkers cloned the first vertebrate sonic hedgehog gene, which is a key determinant of asymmetry in an otherwise spherical vertebrate embryo. The first part of his talk was a historical perspective on how the science of limb development progressed throughout the years. He showed that a combination of good insight, luck and hard determination could lead to remarkable discoveries. The second part of his talk was on a more particular scientific topic: “Physical forces and gut morphogenesis”. “Difference between a cat and a mouse is not because of new types of cells, but rather because of the tweaking of morphogenesis”, he said, pointing out that animals have diversified over evolutionary history not so much by diversity of cells but by innovations at the patterning of cellular morphology. Tabin was an engaging speaker and his lecture was interesting and thought-provoking for those in many fields.
The only thing more inspiring than the stimulating talks of Harvey lecture speakers is the founding story of the Harvey Society itself. The Society was organized in 1905 through the efforts of physiologist Graham Lusk, then a professor at NYU. He and his fellow New York scientists and physicians noticed a growing vacuum of disconnection between experimental researchers, who published their findings only in specialized journals, and medical practitioners, who were already overwhelmed with clinical literature. Therefore, hoping to seal this gap they established the Harvey Society with the object of “the diffusion of the medical sciences by means of public lectures”. In doing so, the founders created a platform in which physicians can engage with scientific researchers and acquire valuable knowledge concerning the scientific problems and principles underlying their own profession. Since its inception, the Harvey lecture has been delivered uninterruptedly for over a century and is rightfully granted the longest running lecture series in the US.
The Society adopted its name from William Harvey, an English physician from the 17th century. An active lecturer and a high-ranking personal physician to the king, Harvey is most notable for his ‘circulation’ theory of the movement of the blood. He was the first to describe in detail the continuous circulation of the blood by the pumping of the heart within a contained system – a theory that shattered centuries of anatomical and physiological orthodoxy and revolutionized the understanding of the human body that some even went so far as to hail it as great as Darwin’s theory of evolution and Newton’s theory of gravity. How the Society came about to bear his name is open to interpretation. One possibility is that he was a ‘scientist’ (to use a nineteenth century term) as much as he was a physician, encompassing both worlds of clinical and experimental medicine. However difficult at the time, he was able to conduct research and gain an audience only through the virtue of being a physician and endorsement from the royalty. In other words, he did the one thing the Society sought to achieve: he sealed the gap between the practical and experimental classes of medicine – or at least it was a start.
As if a complimentary soiree and brilliant presentation weren’t enough to satiate you, there is one more thing the evening has in store for you. After the lecture you can grab a beer and enjoy the company of fellow students and postdocs in the ‘faculty and students lounge’ situated underneath the auditorium. The lounge houses a bar that kindly offers pitchers of beer to Harvey lecture participants. There is no better way to end the day than to share drinks and cultivate a network with other scientists. Today, this historical lecture series is a generous offering to those who love science, so I encourage you to indulge yourself while you can.
Dulguun was born and raised in Mongolia, a richly historic and rapidly developing country in central Asia. Driven by her love of science, she graduated from the University of Tokyo, Japan, with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and is currently a second year PhD student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. As such, she is fluent in Mongolian, English and Japanese. Dulguun is conducting her thesis research on the fundamental mechanisms of cell death and its role in heart dysfunction. Her research involves powerful techniques of chemical, cellular and molecular biology and she hopes that one day her work will lead to the development of drugs against heart disease, which is the most common cause of death worldwide.