Cliff Tabin: Super Sonic
An Interview

Where did he grow up?
Dr. Tabin grew up in Illinois north of Chicago.

What are his parents like? His father was trained as a nuclear physicist and worked with Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico during World War II. One experiment conducted by the Fermi group was to determine the efficiency of the first atomic blast. This required someone to drive into the blast epicenter soon after the explosion in a lead lined tank, open a trap door really quickly at ground zero, get a soil sample as fast as possible and then slam the door shut. Cliff’s father volunt-eered for the job, and as a result, he ended up receiving about 50% of a lethal dose of radiation. He was forbidden by the nuclear regulatory agencies to receive any more radiation exposure for five years, a serious handicap for a nuclear physicist. So, his father switched careers. He became a lawyer involved in scientific issues such as peaceful uses of nuclear energy and acted as counsel for the Salk Institute.

His mother is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children.

What was he like as a kid?
Dr. Tabin describes himself as being a curious kid who was very interested in the way the world works. Science was his favorite subject in school and his father encouraged this interest, but Dr. Tabin wasn’t interested initially in pursuing it as a career. As a very young kid he really wanted to be a professional athlete.

In high school and college he was active in sports – football, basketball, and baseball - and not particularly studious. He followed his dad’s advice to do well in school, but instead of fixating on getting straight As, to enjoy and explore many different aspects of life. Athletics continued to be a major part of his life after college. He played in amateur baseball clubs until an old knee injury forced him to hang up his spikes five year ago.

Does he have any siblings?
He has a younger brother, Geoff Tabin, who is an ophthalmologist and former mountain climber. National Geographic made a television special about him and the eye clinic program he runs in the Himalayas. If you are interested in learning more about his project, check out www.cureblindness.org. Cliff claims he and his brother are not rivals, but when they were younger and both in shape Cliff would probably win in a fight.

What research has Dr. Tabin worked on?
Dr. Tabin has been involved in many interesting advances in molecular developmental biology. As a PhD student in Robert Weninberg’s laboratory at M.I.T. he not only was the first scientist to understand the differences between oncogenes and normal genes, but also the first to use retroviruses as vectors to introduce genes of interest into host cells. As a post-Doc, he was one of the first people to clone vertebrate homeobox genes.

Did Dr. Tabin really discover the Sonic Hedge Hog (SHH) morphogen?
Yes. The Tabin Lab in collaboration with two other labs run by friends of his worked together to clone the three vertebrate hedgehogs. Dr. Tabin’s Lab was the first to clone the genes we now call Sonic hedge hog and Indian hedge hog, while a friend’s lab was the first to clone Desert hedgehog.

Out of all of SHH’s great properties, what does Dr. Tabin like best about it?
Besides the fact that his lab discovered it, Dr.Tabin likes the role SHH plays in the ZPA best as it was the first real molecular evidence of a morphogen in vertebrate development and has had a huge impact on the field. Overall, more than the discovery of this molecule in and of itself, Dr. Tabin is excited about what the discovery of SHH has enabled researchers to further explore. For example, work with SHH led to his lab being the first to discover an asymmetrically expressed gene, a major breakthrough in understanding left-right asymmetry. How did SHH get its name?

The hedgehogs were initially named for the bristle appearance of the Drosophila larvae carrying mutations in the fly hedgehog gene.. Once vertebrate hedge hogs were discovered, Cliff’s group provisionally named them after different species of hedgehogs. SHH, in fact, was originally named Common European Hedgehog. Bob Riddle, the Post-Doc in the Tabin Lab responsible for initially cloning the gene, requested the name be switched to the much livelier SHH after the Sega Sonic the Hedgehog character from a British comic book his six-year-old daughter owned. The Post-Doc thought the name was appropriate since the Tabin Lab had a reputation for being loud and boisterous and the Post-Doc played guitar in a band. Cliff’s collaborators hated the new name, however, since “sonic” meant “groovy” when they were growing up in Liverpool! The name was changed anyways and in a funny coincidence, Tabin’s paper on SHH came out the same time Sega first started promoting its Sonic the Hedgehog game in the United States. A naïve colleague, after seeing a McDonald’s promotion for Sonic the Hedgehog, called Cliff shocked that the Tabin Lab’s new discovery was so popular that McDonald’s apparently was basing happy meals on it!

What is his lab currently working on?
His lab is working on a variety of projects which include studying the role of non-coding micro RNA’s in regulating development, the molecular mechanism by which SHH patterns the limb, the initiation of left-right symmetry, and the development of heart valves. His lab has also begun some evolutionary projects. One involves studying the developmental processes behind the phenotypic variation of Darwin’s finches. He has recently sent researchers to the Galapagos islands to collect eggs for this project.

Dr. Tabin has taught HST, New Pathways and Graduate students. Who does he like teaching best?
He thinks teaching each group is very different. With New Pathways students his goal is to teach the basics of what they need to know as physicians to be able to understand the current state of knowledge in genetics and embryology and to be able to take advantage of advances yet to come, while with graduate students he is able to focus more on the experimental details. Overall, he enjoys the challenges inherent in teaching New Pathways and graduate students more than the different challenges in lecturing to HST students. When he taught HST students five years ago he found them to be “a very schizophrenic group” – although he claims that individual students were not – since everyone had such different educational backgrounds which made coming up with lectures that would work for everyone difficult.

What is the secret behind Dr. Tabin’s energetic teaching style?
He is simply genuinely excited about the course and the subject matter, and wants to share his enthusiasm with the students.

Doesn’t Dr. Tabin have some project in Nepal?
Yes. Dr. Tabin and a group of Nepalese physicians have worked together to create the Kathmandu University Medical School (KUMS). Although Nepal already had twenty medical schools when they began this project, most of these were very expensive and chiefly designed for Indian students who could not get into medical school in India. They worked to create a medical school aimed at teaching specifically Nepalese students for the betterment of Nepal. The school they designed is unique in Nepal in that it has top quality medical educators teaching in a modified New Pathways style, scholarships for needy students, a significant amount of students who are from lower castes and minority tribes, an ethics course, and 50% representation of women in each class. Dr. Tabin’s main role in the project now is to recruit volunteer teachers from Harvard to teach courses at the medical school. While a PhD or MD is required to teach at KUMS, students without advanced degrees interested in doing some sort of work in Nepal can still contact Dr. Tabin and he will be happy to try to find a hospital, organization or local doctor who can work with them.

What is Dr. Tabin’s family like?
His wife Kefira is a former competitive ice climber and a Winter X games silver medalist in speed ice climbing. To support her passion for ice climbing, the Tabins have built a several story indoor artificial ice and rock climbing wall in their house so she can practice. Dr. Tabin, however, has yet to try climbing the wall. They have two young children together – Julius (3.5 years) and Jan (1.5 years).

Published 04.12.04
Today's Talks 05.03.04
Wednesday, May 5
"Cinco de Mayo BBQ Celebration!”
MeSLA, MGH Minority Affairs
Come grab some good food and enjoy the sunny weather as we celebrate Mexican culture and commemorate Mexico’s victory over the French army in 1862.
5:30 pm, Vanderbilt Hall Deanery
Free food.

“The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression”
Countway Library
Lecture and booksigning by Robert Gilbert, author, Northeastern University.
4:00pm, 5th floor, Minot Room, Countway Library of Medicine

Thursday, May 6
"Public Policies for HIV/AIDS with Special Reference to China”
Asia Public Policy Workshop and WHR Rivers Symposium
Debrework Zewdie, World Bank; Jim Kim, WHO; Shen Jie, China Center for Disease Control and National Center for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control; Anthony Saich, KSG.
6:00pm, Starr Auditorium, Belfer Building, KSG

Friday, May 7
“2nd Annual Symposium on Racial/ Ethnic Health Disparities Research in the U.S.: From Research to Practice”
Harvard Interfaculty Program
Faculty discus basic physiology, state-of-the-art treatments, research, and future directions.
Speakers: Reginald Stuart, HSPH; Suzette Oyeku, HSPH; Debra Joy Pérez, GSAS.
8:00am – 4:30pm. Room G-1, Kresge Building, HSPH
Register www.healthpolicy.harvard.edu/ disparity.php, under “Disparities Symposium 2004.” More information, email retucker@disparitiessymposium.com

Saturday, May 8 2004
"Collateral Benefits: Complex Health Interventions Among the Poor”
DRCLAS, Division of Social Medicine Health Inequalities, BWH
Paul Farmer, PIH; Fernet Léandre, Zanmi Lasante, Haiti; Askar Yedilbayev, PIH, Russia; Jaime Bayona, Socios en Salud, Peru; Anne Hasitings, Fonkoze, Haiti.
9:00am – 1:00pm, New Research Building, HMS

"Volunteer opportunity at The Food Project”
9:30 am-12:30pm, West Cottage lot in Roxbury
Transportation provided. Email Christine or Molly Perencevich. Limit 15 students. www.thefoodproject.org/

"2nd Year Show Videos"
Checks to “HMS/HSDM 2nd Year Show.”
Contact: Nancy Chang

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