An Interview with Dr. Harvard Lyman

By Eman Kazi ’15

Professor Harvard Lyman has been a member of the Stony Brook community since 1968.  He’s become a bit of a legend in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and was the lecturer for the course BIO 310, Cell Biology, for a number of years until he retired in the Spring 2015.

1. Where did you complete your undergrad, graduate school education, and post doc?

“I’m from the state of California actually – I did my undergrad at the University of California at Berkley (UC Berkley). I actually completed a Master’s degree prior to my PhD. I did my Masters at the University of Washington in Seattle Washington, and obtained a degree in Plant Sciences. I ultimately pursued a PhD at Brandeis University in Biology and Biophysics, and finally did my post-doc at Brookhaven National Lab in the biology department.”

2. What drew you to the field of Cell Biology?

“As an undergraduate student, I majored in plant sciences, which encompassed a lot of cell biology. I found the work very intriguing. Among the various living species on this planet, I found plants to be very interesting because the plant cell has 3 genomes, which I found very fascinating and ultimately drew me the field of cell biology. I was always interested in plants, ever since I was a child. My parents owned a grocery store, and my siblings and I worked in it. One of my jobs was to trim iceberg lettuce, and whenever I did that, this mysterious ‘white substance’ was secreted – I had an intense urge to find out what it was, and so, I decided in college and then in graduate school to figure out an answer. Turns out it’s an isoprene polymer, similar to rubber.”

3. What is it like to have taught thousands of students and see them all so successful? Your students have gone into research, business, medicine, teaching, academia, industry, etc.

“One word – gratifying. It makes me think I actually did a good job. Possibly the most rewarding thing is, since I’ve been teaching for such a long time, most of my students are very far along in their career, and sometimes I’ll get a letter or an e-mail from a past student, and how my class, cell biology, influenced their life, and that they wouldn’t be where they are today without it.”

4. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

“Oh, I didn’t ever dream of a career in science. When I was younger, I wanted to be a plumber. I was very good at it. My parents were, in fact, very supportive. They just had one rule, before I could be a plumber, I had to go to college and get a degree. Even though I told them I could be a successful plumber with my high school degree, they insisted, and in college I discovered my love of cell biology, and ultimately decided to a pursue a career in science instead.”

5. Did you come from a scientific background? What kind of work did your parents do, and your siblings?

“My parents were immigrants from Lithuania. They owned a tiny grocery store in San Francisco. So, clearly, I did not come from a science background. My siblings are all very successful. One is a lawyer, one was an ambassador to South Africa, one is a professor of Sociology, and the last is involved in information studies, organization, and access at a library.”

6. You have seen Stony Brook University change and you have been here since the beginning. How is it different now?

“The university has changed dramatically since I came here in 1968. The Student Activity Center (SAC), used to be the Biology Building! And this area here [pointing to the floor and the sidewalks connecting Life Sciences Building and Center for Molecular Medicine] was just an empty field! The biggest change is the size, more and more buildings to house all of the students. Possibly the best change I’ve seen, and I’ve been seeing it since day 1, is the student body. Every-single-year, the students are better and better! The SAT and GPA requirements for the university have been increasing since the beginning, and it’s seen in the wonderfully brilliant student body. It’s truly them that makes the university a great place, and I’m blessed to have worked with so many of them.”

7. You have also served in the military. What was that like?

“In 1953, while I was beginning my Masters, I put a few samples in the refrigerator for lab materials, and I placed my lunch in the refrigerator for food. Before I knew it, I had gotten drafted, and left both behind. I was in the Korean War. Anyone in the field of science, was turned into an Army Medic. Granted, most of us scientists had no training in the application of medicine, but that didn’t stop them. Before we knew it, we were running around on the fields with an army helmet with a big red plus sign on it carrying a backpack filled with medicine to patch up soldiers. We didn’t have any formal training in the army either, we kind of figured it out as we went. The entire ordeal was amazing. After serving, the Army in fact promised me and my buddy a guaranteed seat in medical school to pursue a career in medicine. My buddy, Roy, and I stared at each other, I asked him if he wanted to go, and he said, ‘Nah – do you wanna go Harvey?’ and I said, ‘Nah.’ And so we decided to complete our basic science degrees and live our lives. Roy, was in fact, elected to the National Academy of Sciences recently. The entire experience did make me consider another career though, in the field of Public Health. Along with administering care to the soldiers, I was very involved in the organization and analysis of the health of the soldiers- I was very involved in epidemiology work, and I was seriously considering pursuing a career in in Public Health when I returned.”

8. What advice do you have for students here at Stony Brook University?

“Don’t make up your mind too fast! Explore- don’t be afraid to change your mind. Don’t be too committed to an idea, ignore your friends and ignore your family – walk your own path, and take as many detours as you’d like. Often times students come into college fixated on pursuing a certain major and career, and that’s great, but don’t be scared to try new things, college is a time of discovery and will set up your career for the rest of your life, so it’s important you keep an open mind!”

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