Q&A with Shirley M. Tilghman, President of Princeton University, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs

Photo by Charles R. Plohn

Interview by Lynn Adams Smith 

What have you been doing since stepping down as president of Princeton University, and how has your life changed?

After stepping down in July of  2013, I spent a year’s sabbatical, primarily in London, and have since returned to the faculty full time. I have been teaching in both the Freshman Seminar Program and in the Woodrow Wilson School, and working on science policy issues. My life seems to be almost as busy, but the major difference is that I have more control over my schedule.

In layman’s terms, please explain one or two exciting new advances in molecular biology, genetics, or genomics.

The most significant development in genetics and genomics in the last several decades has been the discovery of a technology called CRISPR/Cas9 that is capable of modifying the sequence of essentially any genome in the plant and animal kingdom. This technology, referred to as gene editing, has profound implications for understanding the function of genes, especially in organisms that were impervious in the past to genetic approaches. It has also gained a great deal of attention because of its potential to be used in clinical medicine to correct genetic mutations.  

The second major advance has been the development of a whole new stable of imaging tools that allow scientists to observe the action of individual molecules in living cells. It is the golden age of imaging.

Tilghman teaching a freshman seminar. (Photo courtesy of Office of Communications, Princeton University)

You no longer have an active research laboratory, but advise students on their independent work. Could you provide us with the topics of a couple of senior theses that you found particularly interesting?

Last year I advised a student in the Woodrow Wilson School, Ciara Corbeil, who was interested in the role that the 2016 presidential debates played in educating the public about the policy issues. I became her adviser because I was serving on the Presidential Debate Commission at the time. She did a very comprehensive meta-analysis of the policy content of the three debates, and compared them to different kinds of news programs.

I also advised Angela Liang, a molecular biology concentrator, who wrote her senior thesis on the question of whether there is convincing evidence for trans-generational inheritance of epigenetic information. This is a topic that was being actively explored in the scientific community, but it was also being hyped in the media in articles that claimed that the behavior of mothers and fathers could affect the long-term outcome of their offspring. She was able to convincingly show that the there was little rigorous evidence for such inheritance.  

Talk about Undergraduate Women’s Leadership at Princeton University and explain “She Roars.”

About eight years ago a number of us began to notice that male and female undergraduates were making different choices with respect to seeking leadership positions on campus and applying for prestigious fellowships. I commissioned a study, chaired by faculty member and former Duke President Nan Keohane, to look into the question. The committee she assembled studied the issue intensively and verified that our impressions were accurate.  Men tended to seek leadership in high visibility positions (student government president, editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, officers of eating clubs) while women were leading organizations that attracted less attention — for example, community service and the arts. They also confirmed that men were more likely to apply for Rhodes and Marshall postgraduate scholarships. The committee made very specific recommendations that were intended to encourage women to think more broadly about their leadership potential. The recommendations have been instituted and now there is much less difference between men and women in all categories.

“She Roars” was a fabulous 2011 conference of alumna of Princeton that brought together women across the generations to reflect on their lives and to reinforce their connection to Princeton. There will be a second conference in the fall.         

Talk about your experience serving on the board of directors of Google. How often do you meet and do you sit on a particular committee? Can you share with us what types of topics are discussed?

I served on the Google (which became Alphabet) board for 12 years, and it was a highlight of my professional career. I describe it as having a front row seat to the future. The board met in person four times a year in Mountain View, and had periodic conference calls when issues called for them. The board primarily reviewed the company’s strategy and discussed future initiatives. I was a member of the Nomination and Governance Committee. 

What do you like to do for fun?

The most fun I have these days is playing with my two grandchildren. Otherwise I play tennis and ski with close friends, and garden.

Have you read any good books lately? 

I am reading Go, Went, Gone, a book about the tragic state of African migrants in Germany as told through the experience of a retired German professor of classics, who becomes interested and concerned about their fate.

I recently finished The Islamic Enlightenment, which is a history of Islam during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It recounts the political movements and reforms that occurred during this period that contradict the common view of Islam as a backward-looking religion. 

Do you have any favorite phone apps?  

Yes — Wunderlist, which makes it possible for me to remember what I need to do!

What do you enjoy most about Princeton’s Reunions, and could you share a special memory from one of the many Reunions you have attended?

My favorite event is the P-rade. There is something very moving about watching the generations proceed down Elm Drive, and past the reviewing stand. You are witnessing Princeton’s history — the brave veterans of World War II whose Princeton experience was interrupted or shortened; the arrival of the first women and individuals of color; the appearance of the strollers in the classes that are out five-15 years; then the youngsters and eventually the teenagers who look a little uncomfortable marching with their crazy parents in their orange and black costumes; and the exuberance of the graduating class as they rush onto Poe Field. It is just a joyous occasion.

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski