Dr. Rich was a Professor of Biophysics at MIT and Harvard Medical School. After graduating from Harvard Medical School, he was a post-doc of Linus Pauling along with James Watson. During this time he was a member of the RNA Tie Club, a social and discussion group which attacked the question of how DNA encodes genetics. In 1963, Rich discovered polysomes: clusters of ribosomes which read one strand of mRNA simultaneously. In 1979, Professor Rich and co-workers at MIT grew a crystal of Z-DNA. This was the first crystal structure of any form of DNA.
He had over 600 publications to his name and served on the editorial boards of Genomics and the Journal of Bimolecular Structure and Dynamics. He was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and the founder of Chairman of several Biotechnology companies including Alkermes and Repligen.
Despite his accomplishments, what I remember most was his tremendous leadership attributes. He had a childlike curiosity about how things worked and a Socratic approach to solving technical problems by asking questions of his graduate students. He rarely left the laboratory before 9:00pm or 10:00pm at night and held Salon type discussions after dinner where everyone was allowed to participate and no idea was dismissed without discussion. He had the ability to explain the most complicated science in simple terms and constantly came up with new ideas on which to experiment.
The first research project I conducted started with a question he asked me at one of his discussion groups. “How is it that embryonic heart muscles function immediately but arm and leg muscles take considerably longer to fully develop? The answer must lie in the specific messenger RNA that codes for the different muscle proteins. While I wasn’t able to answer his questions (my assignment was only for 6 months), I did learn a lot about isolating and characterizing DNA using Xray crystallography.
The link below, while a bit long, is well worth listening to as Professor Rich describes his relationships with Pauling, Watson and Crick. You will get some insights into a truly remarkable scientist and human being.
Photo credit: Donna Coveney/M.I.T.