Generous gift in memory of Professor Cyrus Levinthal from Professor Alexander Tzagoloff

Thursday, October 31, 2019 - 11:30
photos of Cyrus Levinthal in black and white and Alex Tzagoloff in color

Thanks to a generous gift from Professor Alexander Tzagoloff in memory of Professor Cyrus Levinthal (1922-1990), the Department of Biological Sciences is increasing the travel funds available to each PhD student during their graduate career from $1500 to $2000.

Levinthal was a visionary scientist and dedicated educator who helped to modernize biology on the Morningside campus. In 1968, he came to Columbia from MIT as the first chair of the newly created Department of Biological Sciences. In that role, he galvanized Molecular Biology and Neurobiology, profoundly shaping the future of the department and research in these two fields. He made groundbreaking  discoveries that profoundly altered our understanding of the mechanisms of DNA replication, the nature of messenger RNA, and the relationship between genes and proteins. Early in his career, he focused on applying the revolutionary new power of computers to protein structure, yielding visualizations of folded protein molecules in three dimensions. Levinthal was also the first to measure the instability of mRNA and estimated the genome length of a virus. His ideas about how long it would take a protein to fold if it explored all possible structures led to the famous Levinthal Paradox. Later in his career, he turned his attention to mapping cell connectivity in the nervous system.

According to The National Academy of Sciences, of which he as a member, Levinthal was “a true pioneer in both of these areas, laying the groundwork for the computer-generated graphical display of protein structure that is commonplace today, and for the renewed interest in computer reconstruction of neural architecture and connectivity that is a key component of the current efforts to map the human brain.”

Professor Tzagoloff hopes that his gift will encourage students to attend professional meetings, which he considers to be an important aspect of their scientific training. Professor Tzagoloff’s trailblazing work on mitochondria has had a profound impact and, like Levinthal, he is widely appreciated in the scientific community for his generous and collaborative approach to science and science education. His combined genetic and biochemical studies with yeast as a model eukaryotic organism laid the foundation for understanding the contributions of the mitochondrial and nuclear genomes towards the propagation and maintenance of the respiratory and energy generating capacity of mitochondria.

PhD students are eligible to apply for the new travel funds if they are members of the Department of Biological Sciences program and have completed their qualifying exams (usually in the spring of their second year), but have not completed more than six years in the department (i.e. until August 31 of their sixth year). Funds may be used to travel to scientific conferences or courses that occur during this period.

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