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Richard Harland Awarded 2014 Conklin Medal

By Marsha E. Lucas

The 2014 Society for Developmental Biology Edwin G. Conklin Medal was awarded to Richard Harland of the University of California, Berkeley for his extraordinary and sustained research contributions to the field of developmental biology and mentoring of the next generation of scientists. Harland, who served as SDB President 2009-2010, cloned and characterized the BMP antagonist noggin, providing the molecular basis for the Spemann-Mangold Organizer effect.

In an interview in July, Harland said the early nineties—the time when they were making new gene discoveries and figuring out how the Organizer worked—was the most rewarding period in his career. This was made possible by the great advances in molecular biology—in particular Bill Smith’s expression cloning methods.

“My favorite moment actually came after the discovery of noggin because I was personally involved still in the experiments in those days. Doing the experiments to show that noggin was a direct neural inducer—that was just unbelievably exciting,” he said.

In addition to their extensive work on BMP antagonists, Harland’s group made significant advances in uncovering the role of FGF signaling during neural induction and the role of planar cell polarity signaling in vertebrate development.

Harland has been a leader and tremendous resource in the Xenopus community. He refined the methods for whole-mount in situ hybridization in the frog which had been quite insensitive. “I tweaked the existing method that had been developed for the fly embryos,” he said. “The first time I saw MyoD expression coming up in tadpoles and knowing that this was just a big improvement in the methods—that was very exciting.” Harland went on to co-author Early Development of Xenopus laevis: A Laboratory Manual. He also co-directed the Embryology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (2002-2007), where he has taught regularly for the past fifteen years.

In recent years, Harland was integral in getting the Xenopus tropicalis genome sequenced. When Dan Rokhsar from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute was looking for another challenging vertebrate to sequence, Harland provided the justification for a genetically tractable frog species. “I’ve been a cheerleader [for sequencing X. tropicalis], but it’s others that did the grunt work,” he said.

Harland receiving Conklin Medal from SDB President (2013-2014), Martin Chalfie

Harland did his graduate work with Ron Laskey at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he studied DNA replication in vertebrates. “I showed up as a naïve PhD student thinking this is going to be a nine to five job,” he said. He quickly learned that was not the case and benefited from “a terrific set of role models at the MRC lab...particularly the American postdocs who had...this terrific work ethic and spirit of scientific inquiry.” Between the postdocs, and having Ron Laskey and John Gurdon as mentors, the MRC was a wonderful environment, Harland said.

He went on to do a postdoc with Harold Weintraub at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. “Hal himself was just a fountain of new ideas... to see that kind of creativity and spirit of inquiry again at another institute was very important and very influential.”

In 1984, Harland started his own lab at the University of California, Berkeley where he was greatly influenced by John Gerhart. “He taught me a lot about frog development,” Harland said. “He was very influential in focusing me on interesting questions and always being encouraging and a useful sounding board.”

Harland’s own trainees describe him as “humble,” “approachable,” and “honest” with “rigorous scientific standards.”

“My [mentoring] philosophy—there’s no way that I can come up with good ideas for everybody, so I think what I can do is to make the lab a fun place to do science and an interactive place,” he said.

“Making the lab a supportive place to do research I think is my main task. And then if you provide a good environment and have good colleagues, then the ideas come about through discussion or independently from people. I’ve always found it incredibly exciting when people have come up with a new approach themselves and then pursue that to its conclusion.”

Harland expressed great appreciation for being awarded the Conklin Medal.

“The SDB is my favorite society. I’ve tremendously enjoyed our meetings and the spirit of developmental biology. ...So, to be recognized by my favorite society is just an amazing privilege and I feel it’s a recognition of all the hard work that my colleagues have done in our joint enterprise and I guess I’m just the lucky one—the figure head to get the nod.”