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The making of a scientist — Stanford’s Irv Weissman under the Big Sky

Some people just seem larger than life. That's certainly the case with stem cell scientist Irving Weissman, MD. His presence fills a room whether he's speaking to a crowd or conversing one-on-one with a fellow researcher. Some of that presence comes from his academic stature. After all, he's director of Stanford's Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine. But it's immediately apparent that Weissman also has a natural ease and composure that's hard to beat.

Recently, I had the opportunity to shadow Weissman during one of his regular visits to my home state of Montana. Like me, Weissman grew up in Montana and even cut his scientific teeth here at the McLaughlin Research Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Great Falls. My profile of his career is published today in our medical school newspaper, Inside Stanford Medicine.

From the article:

In school, Weissman was a good, but not exceptional, student. He struggled with memorization, and didn’t particularly enjoy reading. His mother was a classically trained pianist, and Weissman played the piccolo and flute.

When he was about 15 years old, a friend of his mentioned a man named Ernst Eichwald, MD, who had been recruited in 1953 from the University of Utah to work as a pathologist at Montana Deaconess Hospital in Great Falls. Eichwald had made the move on the condition that he be allowed to spend part of his time as a one-man research program, studying the biology of skin transplantation in laboratory mice.

“Instead of working at the scrapyard for my father’s hardware store, I went to see Ernst, because my friend said it was fun to be around mice and rats,” Weissman said. “But the difficulty was that he was very hard of hearing, and he spoke in a thick German accent. So I couldn’t understand anything that he was saying, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t understand what I was saying. Finally, in a moment of desperation, I said, ‘I’ll work for nothing!’ Suddenly he understood and could talk to me. So I started to work with him in the summer as mouse caretaker, autopsy assistant and lab researcher.”

After just a couple of years under Eichwald's tutelage, while still a high-school student, Weissman was mentoring other students and pulling more than his weight in the field of transplantation research. Fellow Montanan Leroy Hood, MD, PhD, now the director of Seattle's Institute for Systems Biology described to me his first meeting with Weissman in 1956, when Hood was a college student at CalTech and Weissman was a senior in high school:

“I was a little intimidated by Irv,” Hood said. “I hadn’t done anything like that yet at all. From day one it was clear that he was going to be a terrific researcher.”

Hood and Weissman, together with colleague David Baltimore, PhD, own a ranch together south of Hamilton, Montana. Weissman brings members of his lab and other colleagues to the property every year for a scientific retreat coupled with a healthy dose of fun, fishing and decompressing. I caught up with him there last September.

Weissman went on to be a leader in stem cell biology, cancer research and public policy. He played a key role in the development and passage of California's Proposition 71, which funneled about $3 billion into stem cell research in the state via the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. But it's his early years and how they shaped his scientific philosophy that I found absolutely riveting. I hope you do too.

Previously: Stanford researchers protest NIH funding restrictionsStanford’s Irving Weissman on the (lost?) promise of stem cells and Q and A with Irving Weissman
Photo courtesy of Irving Weissman

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