A star-studded Rosenstiel Award ceremony

Cell biologist Titia de Lange received the prize at an event featuring three Nobel Prize winners, Brandeis trustees and a Massachusetts senator.

Jim Haber and Titia de LangePhoto: Bob Keene

Titia de Lange and James Haber

Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus met cell biologist Titia de Lange in the mid-80s when she joined his lab at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) as a postdoctoral fellow.

As he recalled at an event on April 12 to award de Lange Brandeis' Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research, they regularly went out "drinking," by which he meant discussing science over coffee at a nearby café. "Blunt does not do justice to Titia's conversational style," Varmus recalled. She's "indisputably frank but artful, opinionated but insightful, critical but rational, unconventional, humorous, knowledgeable and just delightful — in other words, Titia is the best kind of drinking companion."

De Lange is now the Leon Hess Professor and director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at The Rockefeller University in New York. As part of the Rosenstiel Award ceremony, she delivered a scientific lecture. It was followed by a reception and dinner at the faculty club, where Varmus and others delivered toasts.

As scientific get-togethers go, it was a star-studded affair. In addition to Varmus, who is now at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, there were two other Nobel Prize winners — Brandeis' own Michael Rosbash and Brandeis alumnus Roderick MacKinnon '78. Brandeis president Ronald Liebowitz and trustees Meyer Koplow '72, P '02, P '05 and Ellen Lasher Kaplan '64 also attended. Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey delivered a speech via video link. (See below.) Some of the country's most prominent researchers from Brandeis, MIT, Yale and Harvard were also present.

De Lange told the guests that had gathered in her honor that she considered them family. "Over the years, science has provided me with a family," she said. "I am grateful for all these wonderful interactions with my supportive family without whom I couldn't have survived in science because it's not always easy."

She particularly thanked Abraham and Etta Goodman Professor of Biology and director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center James Haber, who oversees the selection of the Rosenstiel award winner every year. "Jim Haber has been a dear friend who has explained [DNA] recombination to me on many hikes in the Colorado mountains," she said. "You didn't think I was paying attention, but I did learn," she told Haber.

In his introduction of de Lange before her scientific lecture, Haber said she published 16 papers during graduate school, eliciting gasps of awe from the many doctoral candidates in attendance. De Lange later joked that it was a lot easier to publish back then.

De Lange delivered her scientific lecture on telomeres, which she has been researching for nearly 40 years. Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes in our genome. They function like the plastic tips on shoelaces, binding together the two interwoven strands of DNA that make up the chromosome.

Cells constantly repair breaks in DNA, yet somehow know to leave the DNA in the telomere alone, a very good thing since repairing them could introduce errors and structural deficiencies in the genome that give rise to cancer and other illnesses.

De Lange identified a group of proteins called the shelterin complex that protects telomeres from the repair processes. De Lange also spoke about her current research into telomeres and BRCA1, a gene linked to breast cancer. "I'm a nerd, a science nerd and I really only care about one thing, and that's telomeres," de Lange said later at dinner. "Whenever I take time away from telomeres I get kind of arrr," she added, making a sound of displeasure.

Senator Markey, a Democrat, had planned to attend in person but had to remain in Washington for a vote. He instead pre-recorded a message in which he stressed the importance of basic science research, which is what the Rosenstiel Award honors and is a main focus of the life sciences at Brandeis. "We live in a time when science and research are regularly discredited and must be protected," he said. "It is our responsibility as the researchers, leaders and visionaries of tomorrow to do the work that must be done to improve the lives of others."

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