Jim Haber reflects on mentors, students, genetics

His inspirations include Barbara McClintock, whose corn he treasures

James Haber with his hero, pioneering geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock at Rosenstiel Award ceremony, 1977

Professor James Haber had never taken a genetics course when he arrived to teach at Brandeis in 1972. “Somebody said ‘and you will teach genetics,'” Haber recalls. “I really had no business teaching that course, but I did it and I learned by teaching it and by reading books right along with the students.”

Now, 38 years later, Haber is at the top of the field, a winner of the highly coveted Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal for lifetime contributions in the field of genetics. Haber is director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center at Brandeis and is the Abraham and Etta Goodman Professor of Biology.

The Morgan Medal honors Haber’s lifetime of groundbreaking research that has advanced the understanding of the origins of cancer. The award also recognizes Haber “as a superb colleague and teacher.”

This prize is the latest in a string of prestigious honors won by Haber through the years, including his election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

The Morgan Medal carries particular weight; previous Morgan winners include some who have gone on to become Nobel laureates.

“I’m thrilled to be included in the list of people whose work I admire and teach," Haber says of the Morgan Medal. "The other people who’ve won this award are my heroes.”

Haber especially looks to Nobel and Morgan winner Barbara McClintock as an inspiration.

In 1977, McClintock received the Brandeis Rosenstiel Award, presented by the Center which Haber now directs.

“Barbara McClintock is truly one of my heroes,” says Haber, who keeps a photograph of himself with McClintock in his office. “She was the mother of genetic analysis. She was one of the first people to study chromosome instability. A lot of my work is focused on those questions.”

“McClintock worked on corn,” says Haber. “I have several ears of corn which she gave me, which I framed and display at my house.”

Yeast is the tool of choice in Haber’s lab. Yeast sheds light on how cells repair DNA damage and specifically how cells repair broken chromosomes.

“Almost all the cells that are cancerous have defects in these repair mechanisms, so we’re trying to understand in detail how cells repair such DNA damage,” says Haber. “We’ve established a model in budding yeast where we can follow these processes in much more detail than is currently possible in a mammalian model.”

Most of the breaks being studied are caused by intrinsically fragile DNA replication. “Replication is 99.99999% accurate, but there are mistakes,” says Haber. “Some of those mistakes are strand breaks that arise during the process and have to be repaired; most of the time it works, but sometimes you get cell death, and sometimes you get cancerous growth.”

“We’re very interested in a particular mechanism in which a yeast cell can use one of two templates to repair DNA,” says Haber. “We’ve worked out much of the mechanism, and it will prove to be helpful in studying other cell types.”

Haber says his work has implications for all sorts of cancers, but right now it is most directly applied to research on leukemias and lymphomas.

One of the real advantages at Brandeis, Haber says, is that there are not only excellent post-doc and graduate students, but talented undergraduates. He has published over 250 articles, several dozen of them with undergraduate co-authors. “I take enormous pride in the successes of my former students and post-docs. Brandeis is an unusual place where the quality of research is so high and the accessibility to the faculty by undergraduates is so good.”

Michael Lichten, Ph.D., enjoyed that access. “Jim was a real hand’s on guy,” says Lichten, who worked in Haber’s lab for four years in the mid-80s and is now a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health. “He was a professor, but kept his own lab bench near his office and he would pop into the office and come back to the bench, into the office, back to the bench. That kind of continued involvement in the research made for a high level of enthusiasm.”

Lichten remembers that in the lab, Haber had a habit of clarifying complex concepts by grabbing the closest napkin and scribbling. Some students were known to save those scribblings as mementoes. One Christmas Haber received a gift of a pen and a bundle of napkins.

Both men and women were well represented in Haber’s lab. “It didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman,” recalls Monica Colaiacovo, Ph.D., who was a postdoc in Haber’s lab for six years in the ‘90s. “Some had children and he was always very supportive.” Colaiacovo is now an associate professor of genetics at Harvard, running her own lab.

Haber, she says, treated each of his students as individuals. “He knew that I loved art, and I remember that he came back from an exhibit in New York and put a book on my desk. It was a book of art.”

Haber grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of a kindergarten teacher and an insurance salesman. He says he had a natural curiosity, but cannot point to a particular moment that could have predicted his life’s work. “Back in the days when you could have chemistry sets that allowed you to blow up things,” he says, “I blew things up.”

Music played a big part in his childhood home. His brother, who died of AIDS in 1992, was an opera director. Haber, a baritone, has sung in some of the Boston area’s finest ensembles. He is married to professional opera singer Susan Larson. “She was my voice teacher. She thought I was a bad student but good husband material,” he quips.

Haber, who lives in Wayland, has two adult daughters and says he enjoys spending time with his four grandchildren.

In addition to music, Haber enjoys photography and has exhibited some of his work at Brandeis. To his students he is perhaps best known as an avid tennis player, vanquishing opponents decades younger. Despite joint problems, he still runs and works out at the gym and enjoys hiking out West.

And he still puts in long hours in his lab. “It’s a lifetime achievement award,” says Haber, “but I’m not done yet.”

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