FEATURE — Winter 2004
   

 
As director of the Civil Justice Clinic at the law school, Jane Aiken (right), the William M. Van Cleve Professor, helps students understand the plight of the unrepresented poor, while litigating cases involving domestic violence, housing, and homelessness. Third-year law students Patrick Wang (left) and Freda Turner formerly worked with Aiken at the clinic.

Attracting and Retaining Outstanding Faculty

Extraordinary effort and support during the Campaign for Washington University translated into 165 new endowed professorships—the best way to compete for pre-eminent faculty across disciplines. Among those receiving new professorships were social justice lawyer Jane Aiken, gynecologic oncologist David Mutch, and plant scientist Ralph Quatrano.

by Judy H. Watts

When renowned plant biologist Ralph Quatrano, the Spencer T. Olin Professor, arrived at Washington University in 1999, he assumed his approaching installation would be a simple affair, where he might see his family, the chancellor, some faculty, and a sprinkling of University officials. "Then they told me a couple of hundred people are invited to installation ceremonies!" Quatrano recalls. "I said I usually shy away from such things!"

As it turned out, Quatrano enjoyed each minute in Holmes Lounge, where trustees (including Mary Dell Pritzlaff, the daughter of University benefactors Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin), faculty, senior administrators, alumni, and friends joined in the warm Midwestern welcome. (Before Quatrano left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he held a named chair, he was in touch with the Olin family and familiar with the philosophy and achievements of the late Spencer T. Olin.) Quatrano also valued the opportunity to talk with so many members of his new community, "helping them understand what I am here to do." He says that [the installation] "had a big effect on my visibility and ability to start off quickly."

Another distinguished professor, gynecologic oncologist David Mutch—installed in 2001 as the first Ira C. and Judith Gall Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology—has had more than 20 years to get acquainted with the University. A 1980 graduate of the medical school, Mutch completed his internship and residency at Washington University as well, and joined the faculty in 1987. (That was the year his dad knew for certain his son would not be joining his ob/gyn practice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.)

Mutch says the endowed professorship is the highest honor a university can give a faculty member. "I feel particularly honored because Dr. Gall was my mentor when I was a medical student and resident. He's an excellent physician and a truly fine person, as is his wife, Judy." Endowed professorships, Mutch adds, "are the soul of the University: lasting contributions to the mission of teaching, research, and, in my case, to patient care."

Jane Aiken, professor of law, joined the faculty in 1998 and was installed as the William M. Van Cleve Professor in January 2004. "Bill Van Cleve was a deeply respected alumnus of the law school and a man whose personal philosophy impressed me tremendously. He had died only recently, and the installation was a moving outpouring of love for him," Aiken says. "It is a tremendous honor to receive this chair in honor of Bill. I feel embraced by this institution and more committed than ever to its long-term success."

These leaders in their fields—known for their humanity as well as their genius—are among the 165 professors whose chairs were endowed with more than $230.1 million raised during the Campaign for Washington University. With these professorships, the University is better positioned to attract stellar faculty such as Ralph Quatrano and to retain world-class professors like David Mutch and Jane Aiken—who are making the world a better place for more people than ever before.

"My experiences have affirmed for me that the combination—teaching law in the classroom and in clinics—leads to better teaching and better learning."
—Jane Harris Aiken, the William M. Van Cleve Professor

Growing up in South Carolina during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Jane Aiken was appalled by social injustice but "always considered lawyers more of a problem than a solution." Then, as a community organizer in Washington, D.C., after college, she encountered abused women who had no lawyers to help them and a legal system that provided them no remedy. "I am very interested at a philosophical level in what society recognizes as harm and what it recognizes as actionable harm," Aiken says. "Sexual harassment, for example, wasn't recognized 30 years ago. Poor people experience so many harms, and without lawyers to help them frame ways to make these harms known, their needs won't be addressed. That's what we lawyers do best: articulate harm."

The plight of the unrepresented poor is one reason Aiken directs the Civil Justice Clinic at the School of Law, where she helps students examine facts about their clients and gain insights about how their own preconceptions often distort their understanding of their clients' true struggle. The supervised students litigate cases involving domestic violence, housing, and homelessness.

Evidence—how harm is proved—is another of Aiken's scholarly interests and the subject of a course she teaches, in addition to Torts. Of all the Federal Rules of Evidence that govern putting a case before a judge or jury for consideration, she is most interested in character evidence and society's differing assumptions about men and women. Rules of evidence, she maintains, should be a vehicle for leveling the playing field for people who try to articulate their harms before a jury.

Aiken's contributions to her profession, and thus to the community, are enormous. For 17 years, she has been updating federal judges on the evolving rules of evidence through the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. She also conducts rigorous orientations for new judges-née-attorneys, helping them move from being advocates to arbiters. In fall 2001, she was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Tribhuvan University Law School, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Twenty-one WU law students have since obtained invaluable experience in the country.

In summer 2003, Aiken was a senior specialist in Ethiopia for the State Department, which asked her to teach women leaders about women's rights. Aiken adds that when nations such as Ethiopia are struggling, they look for models, "and the U.S. is wealthy enough to send its model around the world.

"But our model would not work at all in Ethiopia—although certain concepts and insights are useful." She talked to the women about how the U.S. Constitution was based on an "incredibly different" infrastructure from Ethiopia's and does not provide for substantive equality like the Ethiopian Constitution. "I asked them to think about that," she says.

In St. Louis, Aiken pours energy into a critical multi-community–based research program. She is academic director of Washington University's Interdisciplinary Children and Youth Project, which includes Robert C. Strunk, professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine; Edwin B. Fisher, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, and professor of medicine and of pediatrics in the School of Medicine; Melissa Jonson-Reid, associate professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work; and health behaviorist Mario Schootman, assistant professor of medicine. The team is testing the idea that children's illness—particularly asthma, trauma, obesity, and Type II diabetes—is tied to community violence. In University City East, for example, the researchers provide training in conflict resolution and anger management to generally poor and under-performing students in late elementary school—funding the training through grants. They will be tracking violence to determine whether the intervention has an effect on health. "We're providing a service to the community; we're gathering important data—data that is useful to our research and to the community."

"Caring for cancer patients is not easy emotionally—but they want me to do my best job in curing them, and I focus on that."
—David Gardner Mutch, the Ira C. and Judith Gall Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology

By the time David Mutch had completed medical school at Washington University and was choosing his residency there, he knew he liked surgery, liked obstetrics/gynecology—and excelled at both specialties. "But I wanted to take care of sick patients," he says, "and that's what led me into gynecological oncology," a subspecialty that involves helping women with cancer of the reproductive organs, often through surgery and always with approaches informed by the latest research.

Since becoming director in 1987 of the School of Medicine's Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Mutch—who is included on a list of America's top doctors in a directory by that name—has expanded its mission of patient care, research, and teaching. The division is now one of the largest of its kind in the country, with more than 500 patients a year—rivaling such hospitals as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City—and is a member of the prestigious Gynecologic Oncology Group of the National Cancer Institute. Under Mutch's guidance, the division will continue to expand research on the molecular basis of endometrial cancer and the associated hereditary component; on the molecular events involved in cervical cancer; and on the molecular changes associated with ovarian cancer.

David Mutch (right), the Ira C. and Judith Gall Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, confers with John Hua, research assistant. Under Mutch's guidance, the Division of Gynecologic Oncology has expanded its mission of patient care, research, and teaching.

Mutch's contributions to breakthrough clinical research and superb basic science are many. He was a key participant with Perry W. Grigsby, professor of radiation oncology at the medical school's Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, in a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (April 15, 1999). In studies of women with inoperable cervical cancer, Grigsby and Mutch, with other physicians in the division, found that the addition of two chemotherapy drugs to radiation treatment very significantly increased patients' chances of survival.

Mutch was the senior author of another study—one of his hundreds of articles published for the medical community—that he conducted with lead investigator Paul J. Goodfellow, professor of surgery, of genetics, and of obstetrics and gynecology. The research involving 441 women showed that mutations in the MSH6 gene occur in at least 1.6 percent of younger women with endometrial cancer—a frequency similar to that of the most prevalent form of inherited colon cancer. Endometrial cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer and the fourth most common cancer in women. Of the 11 women who had MSH6 mutations, seven had the genetic changes in healthy body cells; of those women, whose average age was 57—versus 66 in the other groups—two developed multiple cancers. Cancer onset at a younger age and multiple-cancer development are characteristics of an inherited predisposition to cancer. Currently, when women are diagnosed with endometrial cancer, no recommendations are made to watch family members for inherited susceptibility. But this research and subsequent findings could lead to testing women with endometrial cancer for MSH6 mutations—a feature that could help identify families at risk for certain inherited cancers.

(To accomplish his research, hospital rounds, office visits, consultations, writing, teaching, conferences, and at a dozen weekly surgeries, Mutch typically arrives at his office at 6:30 a.m. and returns home around 7:30 p.m.—to his family, two dogs, and an African Gray parrot—and he works weekends as well.) Of his teaching, he says: "The residents and medical students here are exceptionally smart and knowledgeable. But one of the things I try to convey by example is that seeing life through the patient's eyes is one of the most important things of all."

"When I was at UNC–Chapel Hill and received an offer from Washington University, I talked it over with the former chairman of biology who had hired me. He said, 'Ralph, that's not an offer; that's an opportunity.' And he was right."
—Ralph S. Quatrano, the Spencer T. Olin Professor

"This is the most exciting time in my entire research career!" says plant biologist Ralph Quatrano. He is in part referring to the new science of genomics that allows him to see developmental patterns between widely differing organisms that appeared on the planet up to 500 million years apart. Because scientists can now look at every gene in a genome, they can see many thousands of genes coordinately and obtain a global, systems view of how living organisms respond to cues. Quatrano is also alluding to the dynamic research collaborations across dozens of disciplines that have become essential to understanding complexities of living processes.

Ralph Quatrano, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology, is also chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences and in 2005 director of the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Medicine. In the background above, Moss grows on a defined medium under controlled laboratory conditions. Below: The moss species (Physcomitrella patens)—with a genome of a half-billion base pairs—will be sequenced starting in 2005. It will be only the fourth plant genome to be fully sequenced and the first that is not a seed plant.

Supporting and exemplifying these collaborative intellectual crucibles—which will yield both anticipated and undreamed-of scientific insight—are the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, which Quatrano chairs, and the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS), which he co-directs and will take forward as director in 2005. Faculty in the biology department's undergraduate programs in plant, developmental, and molecular cell biology (areas Quatrano's research encompasses) are also members of the 10 or so interdisciplinary Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. programs DBBS administers, which bridge the Hilltop and Medical campuses. "It's a revolutionary time," Quatrano says. "As a scientist, teacher, and administrator, I am thinking differently about biology and science than I was five years ago!"

One effort in Quatrano's lab is to understand how molecules in a single cell of simple plants become polar, or asymmetrically distributed—that is, how the molecules are directed to sites within the cell and stabilized, and then dictate subsequent cell differentiation.

Quatrano is also studying how hormones and factors specific to certain tissues regulate plants' gene expression during seed development and in response to drought conditions. The simple morphology of moss (the first land plant, it has no flowers or seeds) and specific experimental techniques allow him to replace and inactivate genes to test their role in drought tolerance. The U.S. Department of Energy has recently funded Quatrano's proposal to sequence the entire moss genome; thus, the scientific community can soon add an important missing middle piece—which represents an early evolutionary pathway—to its roster of fully sequenced plants for developmental comparison. (Already sequenced are a single-celled green alga and the more complex plants such as Arabidopsis and rice.)

Hormonal responses in seed plants interest Quatrano as well: in particular, seed formation around the embryo. "I became very interested in why embryos in seeds undergo developmental arrest, not germinating but accumulating nutritive reserves." Quatrano has shown that the hormone abscisic acid (ABA) regulates genes that trigger and arrest germination and stimulate nutrient increase and imperviousness to desiccation. Now he is trying to understand by looking at every gene in Arabidopsis exactly which genes affect these processes. And, since ABA is present in moss, he is also seeking to identify the genes ABA regulates in moss and discover whether any are the same as those affecting embryos in higher plants.

The scientific transformation in which Quatrano is involved reaches far beyond his department, division, and University. As the mysteries of plant architecture are deciphered, the implications for agronomics will be profound. "The more we understand about basic biology," says Quatrano, "the better we will be able to do everything possible to use technology in a way to make plants better for our society and the entire world."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.