by: Aditi Risbud

Pam Silver, Ph.D., is the Elliot T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. As the first director of the Harvard University graduate program in systems biology, Silver and her team seek to enhance understanding of natural biological design, and to develop tools and concepts for designing cells, tissues and organisms.

Through a recent Moore Foundation grant, Pam and her team are using advanced synthetic biology tools and analysis of environmental samples and data to explore marine microbes responsible for helping maintain balance of the ocean’s concentration of nitrogen. In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Pam describes the wide array of projects she embraces and how "no two days are the same."

What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?
I'm a child of Silicon Valley. I was born in Atherton and my parents were part of the Stanford community. Our household was very high intellect, shall we say, with a lot of interest in math and science. And then there was also the climate around Silicon Valley at the time, with a huge emphasis on science and technology, and that really spilled over into the public school system.

I spent a lot of time outside playing around with nature and had precocious math ability, which now would be normal, but at the time because I was a girl, was treated as unusual. I went to Encinal School in Menlo Park, CA, and the science teacher there was amazing, and then to Castilleja School in Palo Alto for high school, which is a private all-girls school. Compared to today, everything felt a lot smaller then, but there were lots of things going on. Personal computers were being invented.

In college, at UC Santa Cruz, I had a real interest in the ocean even though I was a chemistry major. I love to sail and surf, and so I’m really passionate about the sea. When I can make the time, sailing is really my passion on this coast. [In her limited spare time, Pam also enjoys sailboat racing and running, and has competed in several Boston Marathons.]

What topics/areas in science are you most interested in addressing?
For the past 15 years or so, I’ve moved from being a cellular and molecular biologist to being one of the practitioners of synthetic biology. There was a friend of my husband’s who organized a group of bioengineers and computer scientists to form a synthetic biology working group. We wanted to find answers to the question ‘How do we make biology faster, more predictable and cheaper to engineer?’ And because I knew this friend of ours, I was invited to participate as the token biologist in that group, which ended up being a fateful coming together of events that was life changing.

The thing about synthetic biology is it means I can work on almost anything. The whole idea that we're drawing from biology to do things that might have some good impact on people, or the world, is something I’m really passionate about. And so I’m always trying to frame things as, ‘Okay, if we study this problem, what will the impact be?’ So that’s kind of the underlying theme.

For example, I have this project we call the bionic leaf, where we’re trying to interface biology with electronics, essentially, to harvest sunlight more efficiently. I like to do things that maybe sound kind of impossible, and of course a lot of times don’t work.

How do your colleagues, postdocs and students help you achieve your goals?
I have an awesome postdoc who’s really leading the effort for our foundation project, Tobias Giessen. He's just amazing. He made all the fundamental discoveries behind that work and then the foundation teamed us up with an ocean scientist, Bess Ward at Princeton University. I’m so excited about working with her and learning from her point of view.

In addition, I have great colleagues who help my thinking around my ultimate goals; in particular, I have to call out my husband, Jeff Way. He's at the Wyss Institute and he’s my partner in everything. What I really enjoy is the opportunity to engage junior faculty in the area of synthetic biology and get them excited about how they might be able to apply some of their fundamental work to applications. And so far, that’s turning out to be really fun.

I founded a new graduate program here at Harvard some ten years ago in systems biology. I really think students should come to graduate school to do research and learn how to do research. Hopefully you get excited about it and you discover something. And whatever you do after graduate school, that skill set will serve you well. I see it as the students and the faculty meeting each other halfway. I’m also a big believer in the empowerment of students, and that they should take more of an active role in guiding their own graduate education.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
One thing that’s really great is no two days are the same. You're not in a rut: something different is happening every day. People sort of lose sight of how privileged we are to do what we do. Barring really specific obligations, I can come into work almost any time, or decide to work at home for a while. When I go to sleep at night, I think, ‘What's happening tomorrow?’

Every day there is a different set of meetings, a different set of people, or I’m traveling. The beauty of what we do is that it’s one of the few professions where you get to travel around the world. I just got back from China. I was also at a meeting in Urbana, Illinois, which was fantastic. I just booked a flight to India. And then you go to places like India or China, and you know you’re going to meet other scientists. I saw these places in China that I never would have gone to on my own. It’s a wacky life.

One thing that kind of holds us in check, I think, is the grant process. So we always do have to be thinking about where the money is coming from, and that probably puts some structure into this whole business. And, I usually do a self-review at the end of the year and clean up my desk and say, ‘Okay, where are we at?’

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist?
Aside from time? Well, one thing that comes up is how many ideas can you have? On the one hand, you think you have a ton of ideas and these eager young undergrads or grad students or postdocs ready to go. But there’s got to be a reality check somewhere about what you can really do, and what’s worth doing. And I find that to be very stressful. That’s the thing about being an artist or a scientist. You’re up against your own intellect. How much do you question whether something is a good idea or do you just plunge into it and then you find out later that it was not so great after all? And that’s a really hard thing to get right. I mean, nobody really gets it right. There’s a saying that if more than five percent of your experiments are working, you’re not doing the right experiments.

The whole careerism thing is bothersome to me. I was for the most part not much of a careerist and more of a risk taker. But I've grown to accept that I’m a couple of generations separated now. When my students tell me their needs and problems they face—which are sometimes scary—I really want to help them. And the world's a different place. So, at one level it’s easy for me to say, ‘I'll just take a risk and see where things fall.’ I’d love that to be true for everybody, but I appreciate that this is not always the case. I’d love for everyone to be a dreamer, though, so I encourage people to still hold onto the dream.

Read a recent profile of Pam in the Harvard Gazette here.


Help us spread the word.

If you know someone who is interested in this field or what we are doing at the foundation, pass it along.

Get Involved

Related Stories