An Uncommon Legacy

June promises to be a busy month for Paul Berg. There’s the June 16 commencement address he will deliver to Stanford’s medical graduates. On June 26, he will celebrate the investiture of colleague Mark Krasnow as inaugural holder of the Paul & Mildred Berg Endowed Professorship.  And then, there’s another milestone at the end of the month.

“I turn 92 on June 30,” he smiles, shaking his head as if he can’t quite believe it.

The schedule of this scientist, advocate, mentor, curriculum reformer, fundraiser and philanthropist does make that milestone a little unbelievable. Berg’s is a deep, diverse and ongoing legacy. It continues to have impacts on science, Stanford, the design of research buildings, and academia’s role in prodding the transfer of new medical knowledge from research bench to patient bedside.

Paul Berg

A founding member of Stanford’s Department of Biochemistry, Berg won the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his role in developing recombinant DNA—the so-called “gene splicing” technology that transformed genetic medicine and launched the biotechnology industry. “The prize,” as he understatedly refers to it, gives him undeniable scientific bona fides. But in some ways, Berg’s impact has been even greater in breaking down siloes and creating spaces where science can flourish.   

Exhibit A: The Beckman Center at Stanford. This workhorse of a research facility was born of a vision Berg and others had about a field emerging in the 1970s.  Sparked by recombinant DNA, “molecular and genetic medicine” explored how molecules, genes, and proteins worked together. Berg would become the program’s first director, and driver of a building design that “maximized collisions”—collisions of ideas, disciplines, and people.

From co-locating scientists from different specialties, to creating communal spaces for people to gather, to high-speed elevators that encouraged visiting colleagues on other floors, everything about Beckman promoted collaboration and translation. In many ways, the building became a model for others that followed.

In addition to his own philanthropy, Berg has been a fearless fundraiser. In the quest to get Beckman built, he put his name and reputation on the line, attracting support from Arnold and Mabel Beckman, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Mary Lasker and other scientific luminaries of the time.

 “When I believe in something, I don’t mind going out and talking about it,” says Berg, who sees his fundraising simply as an extension of his advocacy. So talk he did—about Beckman in the 1980s, the Lokey Stem Cell Research Building in the early 2000s, and the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, which opened in 2010. He served as faculty fundraising chair for Li Ka Shing; the main auditorium on its second floor bears his name.

More recently, Berg targeted two other passions: empowering the most talented biomedical leaders, and making sure that training programs are in place to create the next generation of them.

“When I saw this possibility, I decided to accelerate the plans Millie and I had to give through our estate. We decided to put the money to use now, when it’s needed and we could see the good it will do.”

“I have enormous admiration for Mark Krasnow, and his many diverse contributions to Stanford Medicine,” Berg says of the colleague he helped keep at Stanford. “Mark is fine scientist, and a gifted teacher. He has mapped the entire system of lung development—from the single cell up to the entire organ—how the cells divide and branch; what genes are involved, how they turn on and off; how some of the cells give rise to cancer.  It’s a remarkable achievement.”

In funding the chair, Berg took advantage of a matching program currently in place to raise endowments for Stanford’s leading biomedical scientists. Through an anonymous donor, a $3 million commitment can be matched by an additional $1 million, bringing the total to the $4 million needed to fund the full endowment.

“When I saw this possibility,” Berg says, “I decided to accelerate the plans Millie and I had to give through our estate. We decided to put the money to use now, when it’s needed and we could see the good it will do.”

He acknowledges that federal funding drives scientific research in this country, but adds: “We need philanthropy to do the things federal money won’t do.  If we can make our best researchers less dependent on federal grants—especially, cut down the hours they spend chasing them—we will increase their creativity and productivity.”

Berg is also supporting and advocating for Stanford’s nascent MD/MS program. Like the MD/PhD program, the MD/MS trains clinician-researchers. But it does so in shorter time (six years versus eight), with less debt to the student and less cost to the institution. Essential to Berg’s way of thinking: it gets the scientist out in the field, active and producing, earlier.

“Everybody knows: we need to do this now,” says Berg. “Just getting started in your career when you are in your 40s is too late. The nation’s pool of physician scientists is aging and shrinking. We need to improve the training of people who are thinking about ‘How can we  advance this scientific problem? How can we get this procedure to work?’” The clinical training component is critical, he believes. “Physicians are some of the best researchers. They often see, firsthand, what needs to be investigated.”

The other driver for Berg's philanthropy is gratitude.

“I am very grateful to Pennsylvania State University and Case Western Reserve University, the universities I attended, for the mentorship, encouragement and opportunities they provided. And of course to Stanford where everything came together.”

Berg arrived at Stanford in 1959, as part of a cohort of scientists from Washington University, under the direction of Arthur Kornberg. The group founded Stanford’s Department of Biochemistry, which Berg would later chair. But his first visit to Stanford was not as a professional scientist.

As a young man, Berg had followed the Stanford football team, having played a little ball himself. He especially liked the 1940 team that went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl, after getting blanked—not winning a single game—the previous year. Berg flirted with the idea of coming to Stanford as a student. But the war, a stint in the Navy, and an inability to transfer credits from Penn State dashed that hope.

Still, there were dreams. In 1945, Berg visited his brother, who was attending the Maritime Academy, located in San Mateo at that time. The brothers decided to visit Stanford, so they hitchhiked to the campus.

“I was a kid from Brooklyn,” smiles Berg, recalling a day more than 70 years past. “The names--San Mateo, Palo Alto, El Camino Real—it was all so exotic to me! We got out of the car and walked up Palm Drive toward the church. I thought: ‘This is a pretty impressive place’.”

As it turns out, Stanford has been pretty impressed with that young visitor, too.