Don Brown Memorial Fund
An LSRF fellowship is more than the support of science. It is a statement about the soul of science, the giving from one generation of scientists to the next. No person gave more than Don Brown. Honor his legacy with a donation to the Don Brown Memorial Fellowship Fund.
Donate to the Don Brown Memorial Fund to Reach Our $5M Goal!
Many thanks to the generous supporters who have already made a gift in memory of Don Brown. Their gifts help support great science carried out by the best and brightest young scientists today. This commitment to the continued excellence and strength of LSRF will inspire and motivate others as we move forward with this exciting chapter in our Foundation’s rich history.
Betty & Bruce Alberts
Mary Jane Blaustein
Sandra Dalsheimer Hess
Susan & Ken Davidson
Kirschner/Liu Family Fund
Harold H. Lee
Anthony P. Mahowald
Kathan & Doug Vollrath
Letter to the LSRF Community
June 23, 2023
Don Brown, who embodied the Life Sciences Research Foundation, passed away a few days ago. Equating a person with a foundation is unusual, but words like “founder” or “leader” fail to acknowledge his immense importance to LSRF. For almost 30 years of its 40-year history, he was the founder, the development officer, the recruiter, and the inspiration to staff and fellows. To understand how one person could do so much, my fellow administrators at LSRF thought that I should tell you a little about Don’s life as a scientist and how that gave LSRF all its special qualities.
Don started his independent scientific career at the Department of Embryology of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. During his first 25 years, Don made seminal contributions to our understanding of genes and gene expression. Together with Max Birnstiel, he was the first to purify a gene and use it to study development. His lab discovered the first gene-specific eukaryotic transcription factor and the first eukaryotic regulatory element. They showed that the element’s position was not constrained to being immediately upstream of the promoter as it was in prokaryotes, foreshadowing the discovery of the position-independent function of enhancers. The initial discoverers of chromatin postulated its potential role in controlling gene expression. This hypothesis was dismissed out of hand by most gene expression experts but not Don. Through elegant experiments, his lab provided the first evidence that DNA sequences could position nucleosomes to control gene expression. Don’s amazing research career revealed that his deep understanding of the bold, high-quality science of LSRF fellows arose from within; he was one of its ultimate practitioners.
During his years at Carnegie, Don not only learned what great science was but also how to grow great science. Don was the director of the Department of Embryology for more than 20 years. During Don’s directorship, he hired 15 faculty members. The research of those scientists led to 10 elections to the National Academy of Sciences, two Lasker Awards, and one Nobel Prize – an unparalleled record of faculty success. Why? It started with Don’s keen eye for bold and creative scientists who, in turn, could advise him to find more young, bold, and creative scientists.
But there was more. The style of science at Carnegie was (and is) unlike most academic institutions. The number of labs (8) and lab size (4-5) were minuscule compared to the departments and labs at universities, but Carnegie scientists had almost unlimited time for research and extensive no-strings-attached financial support. So, success could come by giving the right young individuals the money and the freedom (unfettered by administration) to pursue their wildest scientific dreams.
And finally, Carnegie’s success came from hiring young people whose collective interests spanned the breadth of biology. To say that Don stretched the definition of “embryology” is an understatement. In the 1980’s when I joined Carnegie, the “embryology” research programs of the eight faculty were fly oogenesis, lipid metabolism, RNA metabolism in frogs, mammalian somatic gene regulation, plant transposition, chromosome segregation in yeast, metamorphosis, and worm spermatogenesis.
So, it might be no surprise that Don came up with the format of LSRF as the best way to produce great science: get bold and creative leaders in all fields of biology to identify the best young postdoctoral scientists and then fund their bold and creative plans by annually recruiting companies, institutions, and individuals to sponsor their fellowships. Why did Don decide in 1984 to put his research on a second tier so he could start LSRF? After all, he was not an old man looking for something to do late in life but a 50-year-old world-renowned leader in the field of eukaryotic gene expression working at the cutting edge of transcription and chromatin. I never asked whether a specific event made him decide to start LSRF. But I think it derived from his belief that every young scientist should be encouraged and given the opportunity to chase their dreams, just as he had. And also the pleasure he got in giving them that opportunity.
How did the dream of LSRF in 1984 turn into one of the most coveted postdoctoral fellowship programs in the country? Don had one more trick up his sleeve, his personality. While presenting Don his Lasker award, Mike Brown said, “Don Brown is the Mother Theresa of science.” Don’s selflessness, integrity, humor, humility, and passion won over every scientist that he had ever met. Each year LSRF finalists would get a call from Don telling them he had found a sponsor for their fellowship. For them, Don’s deep, movie-star voice on the phone remains a wonderful memory.
For the rest of us, a call from Don was dreaded; one knew one could not refuse whatever he asked us to volunteer to do. He never took a penny of salary from LSRF. He never got LSRF support for a postdoc in his own lab. When he called, you knew two things. His request was the right thing to do. And, this man, who was devoting his life to selfless acts, was asking you to do one little selfless act. So, when he (or Tom Silhavy or Jim Broach in his name) called 30 world leaders in diverse fields, asking them to volunteer to review one thousand LSRF applications, they agreed, not once but for decades. When Don called Nobel Laureates like Mike Brown, Joe Goldstein, Phil Sharp, David Baltimore, or Bob Horvitz to serve voluntarily on LSRF’s board to help raise the money necessary each year to support his beloved finalists, they agreed not once but for decades. When he called colleagues who had gone on to become CEOs, asking their company or organization to support a finalist, they agreed. At one of the LSRF annual meetings in Baltimore, I was sitting at a table with our invited speaker, Nobel Laureate Richard Axel. I knew he hated to travel so I asked him why he accepted. His response was so simple and overwhelming. He raised his arm and pointed his finger. He said, “Because that man asked.” He was pointing at Don Brown. Through Don’s infectious goodwill and selflessness, he cajoled his friends and admirers to help him turn an idea into a 40-year-old foundation that has raised over ~120 million dollars to support over 740 fellows.
The ripple effect from Don’s personal research and his hires as a director puts him on the list of once-in-generation scientists. The immense ripple effect of his 740 LSRF fellows puts him at the top of that list. But even that summary fails to portray his impact. Through LSRF, he built an incredible community. To a person, the fellows will tell you that the annual meeting is and was one of the best meetings they ever attended because of the quality and unparalleled breadth of the science and the long-lasting networks. What makes their community uniquely special is the understanding of the fellows and mentors that their funds came not from some endowed gift of a long-ago deceased person but from the sweat and hard work of one scientist and his volunteers. An LSRF fellowship is more than the support of their science. It is a statement about the soul of science, the giving from one generation of scientists to the next. No person gave more than Don Brown.