Harold Morowitz and what it means to be a great professor

Posted: March 25, 2016 at 2:57 pm

This week George Mason University lost a great scientist and colleague.  It also lost a great professor. Harold Morowitz leaves a legacy of extraordinary scholarship and, more importantly, extraordinary students, who he inspired to pursue careers in science.

There is indeed no better measure of a professor’s greatness than the achievements of his or her students. One of Harold’s students, James E. Rothman, went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2013.  In his autobiographical sketch published on the official Nobel Prize website, Rothman had this to say about Harold.

“The next stage in my transition (also junior year) came via Harold Morowitz, . . . a theoretical biophysicist with equal interest in science as in philosophy. Harold was a broad intellectual who has had many interests, but just then he was especially interested in the hotly debated question of the basic structure of biological membranes. His laboratory had just done some influential experiments demonstrating thermal phase transitions in the membrane of microorganisms mimicking the behavior of isolated lipid bilayers. In retrospect, I was attracted by a combination of the familiar (thermal physics and conformational changes of a polymer (fatty acid chain] in the phase transition) and Harold’s personal warmth and charm. Soon I was working in his lab with a postdoctoral fellow, designing and building an instrument to measure the phase transitions, and was deeply engaged.

Harold had a way of collecting interesting people around him, including his former doctoral  student Donald Engelman. Harold advised me to go to the research seminar that Engelman was to give during an upcoming visit to Yale. This was the first seminar I had ever attended, and as it turned out it was a “job seminar” resulting in Don joining the faculty of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry soon thereafter. He spoke about his now classic experiments with Maurice Wilkins (Nobel Prize, 1962) demonstrating the lipid bilayer in biological membranes using an elegant combination of microbiology and X-ray diffraction. I think Harold asked Don to take me under his wing, where in a sense I have been ever since (Don remains one of my closest friends and happily we are both now at Yale). We took on the problem of how cholesterol buffers the fluidity of the lipid bilayer, extinguishing the thermal phase transitions, and my earliest publications came from this. Don taught me by his example how to dissect each morsel of data to get the most from it.”

Receiving the Nobel Prize may be the greatest achievement for a scientist.  But having a student receive the Nobel Prize is the greatest achievement for a science professor. Harold’s academic life offers a perfect opportunity to reflect on what it means to achieve greatness as a college professor.

He will be dearly missed.

 

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Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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