BTI 90th Celebration
Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research celebrated 90 years of “pioneering plant science” during 2014. On November 13 and 14, guests, staff, BTI alumni and the BTI Board gathered for a number of events to relive BTI history, celebrate BTI’s accomplishments, and recognize the friendships and collaborations that proved to be so productive for BTI.
Although it was a blustery night, guests at the Thursday night BTI dinner felt right at home in the atrium. Patrons, post docs, grad students, staff, professors and current leadership at BTI greeted out-of-town guests warmly.
The Triad Foundation has given so much support to Boyce Thompson Institute over the years, including $25,000 annually to bring alumni to speak at BTI, specifically for the benefit of BTI’s Postgraduate Society. During 2014, Boyce Thompson Institute also received an additional 1.4 million from the Triad Foundation for the PHH Grant, specifically for innovative research and transformative small-molecule research, including the means to purchase a state-of-the art mass spectrometer (See New Equipment opens up ‘mass’ive possibilities).
BTI Professor Emeritus and Charles E. Palm Scientist Robert Granados has had a long and productive career at BTI. He conducted important research that led to patents, including development of the insect cell line that led to the production of the Cervarix vaccine that has saved thousands of lives. Lynn Leopold’s husband, Carl Leopold, conducted ground-breaking research on many topics including discovering the “glassy state” that refers to how plants like soybeans can suffer dehydration but preserve proteins that allow them to survive and grow once they are hydrated again. Knowledge of these specialized proteins led to the creation of alternative delivery methods for insulin.
Members of BTI were thrilled that Boyce Thompson, nephew of BTI’s founder William Boyce Thompson, joined us for the 90th celebration in Ithaca. He was glad to meet BTI’s leadership, scientists and staff, and had a tour behind the scenes. He also heard an interpretation of BTI’s history and shared some of the history he knows of the family. Boyce Thompson wrote an entertaining blog post about his visit to BTI for the 90th celebration.
Former BTI President Ralph Hardy traveled from Pennsylvania to speak Thursday night. He regaled the audience with highlights from his tenure at BTI, including optimizing the potential of BTI research by filing all possible patents. He also gave his fascinating perspective on the importance of future scientific endeavors.
Laura Philips, the chair of the Boyce Thompson Institute Board of Directors spoke about the impact of the science being done at BTI and of BTI’s role in education of the next generation of scientists. “There are 45 post-doctoral scientists and 28 graduate students working at BTI today…Graduate students gain experience at BTI while earning advanced degrees in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including plant pathology, entomology, biology, plant breeding, plant microbe biology, genetics, chemistry, computational biology, biochemistry and molecular and cell biology…Each summer, dozens of undergraduate and high school students flow through our laboratories to gain first-hand research experience.”
David Stern, BTI’s President and CEO, emerged from a short sabbatical to join the Anniversary events. “It may not seem obvious that plants have brains. Yet, they have as many or more genes than humans…Plants talk to each other, they have circulatory systems and they breathe, inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling the oxygen we breathe. Dissecting the wonder of plants starts with their genetic blueprints…The tomato genome was decoded by a team led at BTI, and just last week Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack presented an award recognizing that work to BTI faculty members Joyce Van Eck, Zhangjun Fei and Jim Giovannoni…The plant brain, like ours, has a very delicate and complicated chemistry. Plants alone are thought to make something like half a million unique chemicals, most of whose functions are unknown but some of which are more familiar, including those that give the pleasures of wine and chocolate, or medicines like taxol, digoxin, and opiates like morphine. BTI researcher Frank Schroeder, himself a chemical wizard, has discovered a new class of compounds that affect lifespan in animals. These same chemicals may work as pest repellents in agriculture.”
And finally, “Conversations with the Colonel,” an original drama conceived by Emeritus Professor Robert Kohut, written by Kelly Rourke and Kaela Bamberger, and performed by two local actors, gave us insight into the founder of BTI, WIlliam Boyce Thompson, and what BTI has accomplished since his death in 1930. “I may not know what molecular biology is, but I know studying plants is the gateway to understanding the order between life and the universe. I was hoping to contribute something to the future of mankind.”
“I remember the building in Yonkers very fondly. The sheer time and thought we put in before a single scientist was hired. We visited laboratories here and abroad, consulted with experts, gathered a library of volumes from around the world, considered what kind of equipment and personnel would best serve us. I wasn’t just throwing money at the project, you know, I was quite involved with the process. I wanted to give scientists laboratories that were well equipped, and I wanted to see that their research was published promptly. It looks to me like you’re well equipped but not doing too well with the publishing promptly bit.”
The guests enjoyed a fabulous meal catered by Word of Mouth catering, with the photographs of Ithaca artist David Watkins and images from BTI’s history gracing the walls.