An Integrated Introduction to Science for the 21st Century
Harvard biologist Andrew Murray thinks of his research group as an artists' colony – a place where people with different interests come together to work on a variety of things. An assortment of projects is always underway in his lab. “I lack the laser-like focus that characterizes many successful scientists,” he says. “I'm a magpie: I see shiny objects and pick them up and put them in my nest, and then I tend to fly off to look for other shiny objects. It means, I hope, that the lab I'm in charge of is an interesting and stimulating place.”
A variety of biological questions have captured Murray's attention since a Shakespeare-quoting high school chemistry teacher ignited his interest in science. Today, major projects in Murray's lab center on population genetics, the evolution of biological functions, and cellular growth and coordination. He seeks variety in his teaching, too: he abhors the idea of teaching the same course for years and years. But his commitment to education has been unwavering ever since that same high school chemistry class, when he helped a lab partner master the material. “I enjoyed doing it, and I knew I would like one day to teach people,” he says.
Murray majored in biochemistry at Cambridge University, spurred in part by the exhilaration of six months he spent working in Nancy Hopkins' lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before he started college. “Splicing was being discovered,” he recalls. “David Baltimore was about to win the Nobel Prize. It was so exciting and wonderful.” He entered the graduate program in cell and developmental biology at Harvard Medical School in 1978, and spent two years rotating through labs before joining Jack Szostak's research group, where he produced the first artificial yeast chromosomes. “I was a wayward graduate student,” he says. “I had lots of big ideas, but little sense of how hard it was to go from idea to execution.”
Meanwhile, he also took on his first official teaching position. A successful summer teaching fellowship in the Physiology Course at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole led to an offer to help teach Yale's cell biology course while Murray was barely out of graduate school. He leapt at the chance, taking the train from Cambridge, MA to New Haven, CT every week to present a third of the lectures for the undergraduate course. It felt like an immense responsibility: “It is quite possible I have never taught as well as I did then,” Murray says.
Following postdoctoral work in Marc Kirschner's lab on the role of cyclin proteins in the cell cycle, Murray stayed at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and set up his own lab. There, he co-discovered the spindle checkpoint, a control circuit that cells use to make sure their chromosomes are lined up properly before chromosome segregation begins, and identified its activators and targets. He also developed an in vitro system to study how chromosomes segregate and showed that proteins other than the best-known drivers of the cell cycle, cyclins, must be destroyed to allow pairs of chromatids to separate and migrate toward opposite ends of a dividing cell.
In 2000, Murray moved his lab to Harvard, seeking more opportunities to interact with physicists and evolutionary biologists. The time was right for a foray into population genetics. The field had been largely theoretical until that point – a “vicious mathematical battleground” between competing theories, all of them difficult to test. But DNA sequencing had become much cheaper, making experimentation more accessible. Murray worked with theoretical physicist Daniel Fisher and graduate student Michael Desai to develop and experimentally confirm a model for determining the speed limit of evolution in asexual populations.
He also began using yeast to investigate how organisms evolve new functions. “We've been trying to evolve cells to do cool new things,” he says. “If you push them really hard in a lab, how different can you make them?” Those experiments have generated yeast with features such as altered mating preferences, multicellularity, and circadian oscillators.
Although Murray had always wanted to teach undergraduates, his lectures at UCSF, which has no undergraduate students, were always to graduate and medical students. Those were demanding audiences who taught him a lot, he says. At Harvard, he was able to teach undergraduates again. He taught a genomics and evolution course with Cassandra Extavour; developed a systems biology course that aimed to get biology and physics students to see problems in new ways; and taught a general education class on statistics and probability called “What are the Odds” with philosophy professor Ned Hall.
Murray wants his students to know that there is nothing that they can't learn and do. “I want them to know that the right approach to solving biological problems is by any means necessary,” he says. That means becoming comfortable with not just biology, but also physics, math, and computer science – and feeling confident to acquire new skills as needed. As an HHMI professor, Murray is planning a year-long integrated science course that will expose students to a wide array of research methods through real research projects, giving them the interdisciplinary knowledge and resourcefulness they need to do modern biology. “It used to be true that there were frontiers between different disciplines, but now, the most interesting science goes on where the frontiers used to be. In the opinion of lots of people, this is where science is going, and we should be training the next generation of scientists to thrive here,” he says.