Rockefeller University's Quest to Cure Everything
by betsy f. perry
While many philanthropic New Yorkers support high-profile fundraising galas at the ballet or opera and pose red-carpet ready for big-ticket events at the Met, the Schwarzman Building of the Public Library, and even the Central Park Zoo—happily nuzzling fuzzy critters for the paparazzi—there’s another set discreetly but generously putting their money behind unsexy scientific research, think-tank summits, and wonky lectures by Nobel Prize winners, all to fund clinical research and hopefully discover life-changing solutions for medical issues. At a recent brainy Rockefeller University benefit lecture on DNA, one gloriously handsome guest with manners that make you want to weep with joy surveyed the assembled group and remarked, “Money talks, but wealth whispers.” Though attendees included recognizable benefactors David and Julia Koch, as well as a Gruss, Kravis, and a couple of Roosevelts, judging from the less familiar but stylish ladies in conservative Oscar and Carolina—embellished with gawk-worthy bursts of Verdura brooches—and men in their Hermès ties and Lobb bespoke shoes, the $1.2 million raised from this mind-expanding but decorous evening spoke to the assembled wealth and willingness to give, even without the possibility of their name ending up on a gene.
Whether for personal reasons or on a need-to-be-clued-in basis, smart New Yorkers have understood the importance of pushing and funding scientific research despite the patience involved and the lengthy waits to have a discovery in sight. The elegant Deeda Blair, an activist and disciple of the late medical philanthropist Mary Lasker, has for years been pushing the medical envelope and connecting venture capital, foundation, and private money with scientists, Nobel Prize winners, researchers, and academics in her quest to move research along. Recently, Blair cofounded the New York–based Alexandria Summit—private conferences at which leading researchers in, for example, neuroscience or oncology gather to exchange ideas. National Book Award recipient Andrew Solomon, who has attended and participated in these summits and is author of the blockbuster book Far From the Tree, about exceptional families, has spent time with Blair and says, “You would think someone of that style, who entertains so beautifully, wouldn’t put in the time for these complicated issues. She could have had a different type of life, [but] this is what she has chosen to make a difference.”
John D. Rockefeller founded Rockefeller University in 1901
And she is hardly the only one. Generations of wealthy New York families have supported Rockefeller University—the world-renowned center for research in the biomedical sciences and the first institution (founded in 1901) in the country solely dedicated to this field. However, it remains an enigma to many who pass by the iron curlicue gates and spiky fences. Located on 14 acres of prime New York real estate in a hodgepodge of architecturally diverse buildings between York Avenue and the East River, the discoveries made within these confines exceed all physical boundaries. Once past the sentry on 66th Street and up the driveway to the original 1906-constructed Founder’s Hall, in a lobby lined with portraits of three generations of Rockefellers (including a copy of the original portrait of John D. Rockefeller painted by John Singer Sargent), you enter a highly collaborative institution, a quietly buzzing hive of research and clinical trials (at the campus hospital, the first center for clinical research in the US), which has been home to 24 Nobel Prize winners, 21 Lasker Award winners, and 20 recipients of the National Medal of Science. Who knew?
Evidently many, who pass the word on to friends and family, and it’s not uncommon to see layers of socially prominent families involved—Marnie Pillsbury and daughter Blair Pillsbury Enders; Henry Kravis and daughter Kimberly Kravis Schulhof; Evelyn Gruss Lipper and daughter Daniella Lipper Coules; and the Ravenel Curry III family, whose son Boykin IV and daughter-in-law, designer Celerie Kemble, are now committed. The younger Curry, a partner at investment firm Eagle Capital Management, looks at his involvement with Rock U in two ways and explains, “Given what Rockefeller University has accomplished, there’s a super high return on investment compared to other philanthropies, and I love science, so to have brilliant researchers explain what they’re doing in terms I can sort of understand is an intellectual thrill I don’t get that often.”
Guests at a lecture at Caspary Hall, the university’s main event space
And it seems apparent this younger generation of New York philanthropists is willing to invest serious money to research a host of diseases and medical issues (e.g., the autism spectrum and obesity) that affect their children as well as the world’s children, but without seeing their name in lights or carved into concrete. As Sharna Goldseker, the managing director of 21/64, a nonprofit consulting practice specializing in multigenerational and family philanthropy, puts it, “The next generation doesn’t care as much about recognition and is motivated by values, not valuables.” Social observer David Patrick Columbia is a bit less compassionate, stating bluntly, “There have always been people who contribute [to] or take an interest in medicine or the medical sciences for a variety of reasons—sometimes smart, other times hoping to live forever.”
Rock U has launched initiatives like Women & Science and, most recently, Parents & Science so that a younger philanthropic audience can learn about health challenges that impact the community as well as individuals. For example, the two groups are teaming up for a special evening seminar on February 19 to explore how melanoma has become a worldwide health problem. As a result of programs like these, 2,400 new guests have visited the campus since the inception of Parents & Science in 2007.
A scientist at work in an RU lab. Generous donor funding frees researchers to take risks without fear of losing grant monies
Dr. Anna Chapman, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, mother of two boys, and wife to philanthropic billionaire Ron Perelman, had long been interested in Rockefeller’s research (having worked at neighboring Weill Cornell) and so joined the board last year. Comfortable with her husband’s wealth and ability to give, Chapman admits, “We’re on the big board, and I’m about to go on the clinical hospital committee because as a doctor I think I can contribute more.” With many friends involved, Chapman adds, “The Parents & Science programs also piqued my interest because they do a lot with children’s brain development, and at Rockefeller there’s a lot of interest in helping humanity without the rest of the fanfare.” As to whether she plans on giving in a big way, she says, “This is my first foray, and I’m starting gradually with my contributions, but you do get the feeling every cent you put in will be used to its full potential.”
While everyone’s eager for cures and discoveries, RU’s scientists openly share that generous donor-funding encourages them to be productive and take risks, but thankfully relieves them of the fear of losing funding—which research scientists elsewhere often face. Neurobiologist Dr. Leslie Vosshall says, “This is one of the few places on earth where you’re given a cloistered environment to test crazy ideas and with plenty of support you don’t have to worry about bringing in grant money.” Bloomberg LP’s chairman, Peter Grauer, is a trustee and now chairs RU’s finance committee. As a prostate cancer survivor, Grauer admits that his bout “dramatically increased my interest, and while there may never be a Grauer research center, there are a lot of very generous board members, and the expectation is we will support the capital campaigns.” Focused on the younger benefactors, Dr. Bruce McEwen, who has spent his career researching how stress and sex hormones affect brain development and activity, also serves as the faculty advisor to the Parents & Science initiative. After time spent with these 30-to 50-year-old supporters, McEwen sees the younger philanthropists motivated to contribute. “A lot of well-off New Yorkers have a strong social conscience, and understand that poverty and early life adversity have a lifelong effect on health, which creates human misery and adds to the impact of disease.” Investment advisor Daniella Lipper Coules is deeply engaged in this initiative, and while fortunate to have healthy kids, she says, “some come because their children may have autism or learning issues,” adding that the Parents & Science lectures cover everything from how your child’s brain grows to studying the bonding between parent and child. As a cotrustee of a family foundation along with her mother, Evelyn Gruss Lipper—a Rock U trustee and pediatrician—she admits to a deep connection but attends “for the lectures, not the social part.”
Celebrating Science Benefit Cochair Silvia Zoullas (right) on a lab tour with Liz Garner, a postdoctoral associate
Once at a lecture—amusingly referred to by Boykin Curry IV as “ the gateway drug”—you’re hooked; RU is a highly addictive place, and exposure can be transformative. Curry and wife Celerie Kemble admit “some of the sessions have actually changed the way we raise our three children.” Kemble happily adds, “Compared to a typical gala event, we leave the lectures stimulated rather than exhausted. Plus I get home for the kids’ bedtime, and I end up talking about something besides my day over dinner with my husband.” Another enthusiast, Vanessa Weiner von Bismarck, cofounder and partner in the PR firm BPCM, says she usually finds “attending luncheons a pain, but these lectures are worth it and there’s no networking going on,” adding that “while science lectures are usually too complicated, these aren’t.” (Bismarck’s husband, Maximilian Weiner, is cofounder of Praximo, a company specializing in tele-medical and virtual healthcare.) And Talbott Lea Simonds, managing director at Tondern Capital and grandson of Pittsburgh billionaire philanthropist Henry Hillman, claims he was “roped in by Kimberly Kravis Schulhof,” but after attending a few lectures on issues wrestled with as parents, he and wife Carter, daughter of former Sotheby’s CEO Dede Brooks, were all in. As Simonds shares, “This place is not about having your name on a committee, but rather about engaging a smart money set intellectually and often for personal reasons.” Equally engaged by RU’s studies on Alzheimer’s and lectures on immunization, obesity, and stress, Silvia Zoullas, married to Sophocles Zoullas, chairman and CEO of Eagle Bulk Shipping, is grateful for what she learned at RU and now knows enough about concussions totell her soccer-playing daughter, “Whatever you do, don’t hit the ball with your head.”
Generations of wealthy New Yorkers have supported Rockefeller University, which has been home to 24 Nobel Prize winners
Perhaps aware that our time traipsing this crowded planet is limited and sometimes hampered by ill health, participating donors seem eager to support any biomedical research that may slow down the process of a degenerative illness or ultimately prevent it, if not for them then for future generations. Since the death of John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s grandchild from scarlet fever at age 3 and his realization there were no American institutions devoted to research in medicine, Rockefeller University has been buying time for us all. From early discoveries developing serums for meningitis to groundbreaking studies on cholesterol and heart disease or David Ho’s HIV study that led to the design of the AIDS “drug cocktail,” these research scientists have attacked their work fiercely. With donors funding brain research, neuroscientist Cori Bargmann and her colleagues are elucidating how behavior is influenced by genes, environment, and experience. Dr. McEwen, head of Rockefeller’s neuro-endocrinology lab, says, “Our goal is to slow down degeneration or prevent it, and by recognizing symptoms we can slow it down.” RU neurobiologist 48-year-old Leslie Vosshall has spent years working with pesky flies and mosquitoes. Support from her personal cheerleader and trustee, investment banker Robin Chemers Neustein, helps enable Vosshall to investigate why some people are more attractive to mosquitoes than others. Though Vosshall admits, “I won’t personally be bottling insect repellent,” her research, global in reach, hits home when you realize the West Nile virus may be in our own backyard.
Maybe that’s what intrigues donors and pushes them to continue supporting research without the instant gratification of an aha moment or their name on a vaccine—without their support, no risks can be taken and no rewards achieved. Looking back, consider the distance we’ve come with so many life-threatening diseases; looking forward, imagine the possibilities. Money well spent for sure.
photography by sari goodfriend (Voss hall); Scott Rudd (caspary auditorium); Patrick McMullan/ PatrickMcMullan.com (kemble); rockefeller archive center (jdr); Dean Neville/BFAnyc.com (rockefeller university)
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.