Lander, Ifill to speak at 214th Commencement

Williams College has announced that Eric Lander of the Human Genome Project, member of the Whitehead Institute and director of the Whitehead’s Center for Genome Research, and professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will be the keynote speaker at the College’s 214th Commencement on June 8. Gwen Ifill, journalist and host of PBS’s Washington Week in Review and senior political correspondent for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, will be the Baccalaureate speaker on June 7.

Lander has been at the Whitehead Institute since 1986 and founded the Whitehead Center for Genome Research in 1990. Under his leadership, the Center has developed most of the keys to modern mammalian genome study and is the leading contributor to the international project to sequence the human genome.

Calling the Whitehead the “flagship genome center,” Lander has said that the project “is biology’s periodic table. . . Students in the 21st century. . . are not going to be able to imagine what it was like to do biology in the 20th century before you knew all the parts. . . The really great reward for working on a project like this is it’s going to become so fundamental and so essential that everyone’s going to take it for granted and that’s a good thing.”

Originally a mathematician, Lander received his B.A. from Princeton in 1978. He was chosen for a Rhodes scholarship and received his D.Phil. in mathematics from Oxford in 1981. He was an assistant and associate professor of managerial economics at the Harvard Business School from 1981 to 1990. After joining the Whitehead Institute as a fellow in 1986, he joined the faculty of the Whitehead and MIT in 1989, where he is professor of biology.

Originally, Lander intended to apply his mathematical knowledge to understanding the human brain. But before long, he realized that his knowledge of the brain was insufficient for the problems he wished to solve.

“Being naïve, I started learning biology in my spare time,” Lander said. “And you know how these things are – one thing led to another, I began moonlighting in labs, cloning genes late at night, and eventually took a leave of absence for a while to go down to visit at MIT and learn more about this and I guess I got hooked.”

Lander is pleased with how things turned out: “Now I run a genome center in the laboratory that has both wet laboratory work and dry mathematical analysis and they come together very happily. It is a nice accident.”

Lander received the 1987 MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship for his work in genetics. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1990, in recognition of “research on the application of mathematical and statistical approaches to molecular genetics.” He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1997, the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 1998 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999.

When Ifill took over as moderator of PBS’s Washington Week in Review in 1999, she became the first African-American and the first woman to host the prominent political talk show since its 1967 launch.

According to Tim Russert, her former boss at NBC News’s Washington bureau, “If you’re a good reporter, a terrific writer and great personality, it’s a perfect combination for television, and she’s got all three.”

Ifill said her interest in journalism stems from watching the national news with her family every night as a child. A communications major at college, she worked at The Boston Herald-American and The Baltimore Evening Sun before beginning her career in Washington. Her first television appearance came during her time in Baltimore, when she was invited to spear on Maryland Newswrap, a weekly analytical news show.

In 1984, she went to work at The Washington Post, and in 1988 was promoted to the national news desk, where her first assignment was to report from the Republican National Convention. She worked as a Congressional correspondent and then covered the White House beat during the beginning of the Clinton administration.

Ifill began her television career as NBC’s Congressional correspondent. She covered top stories during her time there, and her reports appeared regularly on NBC Nightly News.

She said she noticed differences between print and television journalism right away: “If a hurricane was a story of the day, maybe something important was happening on the Hill – maybe there was a campaign finance vote – but that will never get reported.”

During her years in Washington, Ifill became a regular on shows such as Meet the Press and Washington Week in Review. In addition to becoming moderator of Washington Week, the PBS producers offered her the spot of senior political correspondent for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.

A native of New York City, Ifill attended Simmons College in Boston, where she graduated with a B.A. in 1977. She is chair of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Awards and a board member of the Harvard Institute of Politics and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.