Wacław Szybalski

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Born in 1921 in Lwow, Poland, to a family of intelligentsia (his father was an electrical engineer; his mother used crystallography to study the structure of molecules), Szybalski survived World War II and serial invasions by the Soviet Union, Germany and then the U.S.S.R. once again. In 1949, after earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Institute of Technology in Gdansk, he moved to Copenhagen. In 1950, recommendations from eminent Danish scientists, including the physicist Niels Bohr, helped Szybalski move to a genetics lab at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, N.Y. At Cold Spring Harbor, which was already a capital of the emerging science of molecular biology, he plunged into the study of antibiotic resistance. n 1960, after a few years at Rutgers University, Szybalski joined the McArdle Laboratory at UW-Madison and started pioneering studies on a virus that infects bacteria. The virus, called lambda phage, became a mainstay in Szybalski's career-long interest in how genes are transferred, modified and regulated. At McArdle, he also learned to alter DNA so cancer cells would be more susceptible to radiation. In 1962, Szybalski became the first to insert DNA into human cells, and the next year, the first to create functional DNA in a glass dish. Szybalski invented HAT selection, a technique for separating those cells that had been genetically modified.

Prof. Szybalski will deliver the Ulam lecture at RECOMB 2015.

RECOMB 2015 keynote talk: The Essence of Life
Just as Stanislaw M. Ulam (1909-1984), I also was born and educated (1921-1944) as Ch.E. in the multinational, but very Polish and dearly loved by us city of Lwów (Leopolis, Lvov, Lemberg, and Lviv). Therefore, I will start my Ulam’s Lecture by sketching his life as the Leopolitan mathematical genius, creator of the Monte Carlo method and hydrogen bomb, through the years of still lasting tragedy of our pre-WWII Lwów, as imposed upon us by terror, murders and finally by practically total deportations of citizenry, as carried by Soviet Russians, Nazi Germans and their henchmen, secretly assisted by shameless approval by signatories of the Teheran, Crimea (Yalta) and Potsdam WWII treaties.
Then, I will stress how my exposure to Lwów scientific life (Viva Profesores Leopoliensis !) has lead to our successes in USA, while contributing to the physical genetics of DNA as the basis of life, followed by creating new fields of gene therapy and synthetic biology.
Finally, I will introduce the documentary film, “The Essence of Life”, in which the director, Anna Ferens, takes her artist’s look at my scientist's life, whereas I will try to add more of the scientist's perspective.