In memoriam: Carolyn Slayman, pioneering researcher, educator helped shape medical school
Carolyn Walch Slayman, a pioneering scientist and deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs at Yale School of Medicine, died on Dec. 27 at Yale New Haven Hospital, at the age of 79. Her husband of 57 years, Clifford Slayman, son Andrew Slayman, and daughter Rachel Platonov, were with her. She had been undergoing treatment for recurrent breast cancer.
Slayman’s distinguished career spanned more than half a century. Most of that time was spent at Yale as a bench scientist and then administrative leader who influenced scores of students, trainees, and colleagues. Although humble about her considerable accomplishments, she was a pioneer on many fronts. When named chair of the Department of Human Genetics (now Genetics) in 1984, she was the first woman to head a department at Yale School of Medicine. She then became the school’s first deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, in 1995, and was the first woman to hold a deputy deanship.
“It is difficult to overstate Carolyn’s influence on the School of Medicine and the many individuals that have passed through our doors,” said Dr. Robert J. Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine. “We depended on her judgment and wisdom to help guide every major decision. Her passing is a major loss to all of us.”
She was born in Portland Maine, to Ruth D. (née Sanborn) and J. Weston Walch on March 11, 1937. Her father was a debate coach at Portland High School and a publisher of debate handbooks, and in her preteen years, Slayman frequented libraries in Portland and Boston to gather articles for her father’s business. Although she shied away from high-school debating herself, as a junior she served as debate coach for Deering High School, when the regular coach was on sabbatical. The first scientist in her family, she graduated from Swarthmore College in 1958 with highest honors in biology and chemistry and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After entering graduate school at Johns Hopkins University to study biochemistry, she transferred to Rockefeller University in 1959, where she was the only woman in her class. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemical genetics in 1963 under the guidance of E.L. Tatum.
As a National Science Foundation Fellow, Slayman did postdoctoral work in membrane biochemistry at Cambridge University. Then in 1967, following a brief stint as assistant professor at Western Reserve University, she joined Yale as assistant professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Physiology. She helped to establish a graduate program in the nascent Department of Human Genetics in 1972 and served as director of graduate studies in genetics from 1972 to 1984. She once said that because her policy was to admit the best candidates, there were equal numbers of men and women, an anomaly at that time. In 1984, she was named chair of the Department of Genetics, serving in that position for 11 years. In 1991, she was named Sterling Professor of Genetics, in recognition of her academic excellence and leadership.
Slayman held the position as deputy dean continuously, from her appointment in 1995 until her death. In this role, she oversaw academic and scientific affairs, focusing her attention on faculty recruitment and development for the School of Medicine’s academic departments, and the creation and advancement of research programs. She helped create many of the medical school’s research cores, including the Yale Center for Genome Analysis at the West Campus, and she was instrumental in Yale’s applications for many institutional grants. Believing that working together is more effective than working alone, she spearheaded the renovation and modernization of the medical school’s laboratory space in an effort to create an environment that allows scientists from different labs to share ideas.
Slayman was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 1995. She served on numerous scientific boards and panels, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientific Review Board and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Panel on Scientific Review. She was recognized for her research on the proteins that transport nutrients across cell membranes and on the genes that code for those proteins. Her work on the biochemistry of membrane transport broke new ground in its focus on nucleated microorganisms, including Neurospora crassa (the pink bread mold) and Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeasts that make beer, wine, and bread). Using these organisms, she studied ion transport across cell surface membranes, describing the mechanisms by which a crucial ATP-splitting enzyme drives protons out of cells and the coupled backflow of protons carries nutrients into the cells. She utilized classical biochemistry, modern microchemistry, and rapidly evolving genetic techniques to show that this “ATPase,” is closely allied to enzymes which drive transport of sodium, potassium, and calcium ions in animal-cell systems.
From 1964 through 2000, Slayman’s research was funded by the NIH, including a MERIT award from 1989 to 1999 (long-term support for especially productive scientists). Beginning in 2000, she relinquished NIH support to devote her full energies to her administrative role. Although her laboratory was scaled back, she continued to run it, discussing each day’s experiments over a morning cup of tea with head lab technician, Ken Allen, who worked with her for 42 years. Another favorite activity was to pop in to her lab on a short break to discuss experiments. “It’s a nice way to punctuate the day,” she said. For most of her academic life she worked seven days a week, and she still held Saturday meetings with her lab staff up until her death.
Slayman was known for her unflappable nature, keen intelligence, sense of humor, and ability to hone in on solutions to even the thorniest of problems. She was a master storyteller, and used that gift to connect with everybody around her. “My job is to be a catalyst,” she once said. “I try to bring people together and foster active discussion that will guide us.” Her commitment to the training and education of young scientists was unwavering. Even after almost 50 years at Yale, she retained her passion for recruiting and nurturing promising faculty members. Her colleagues, both junior and senior, never failed to learn from her.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Carolyn Walch Slayman Fund to honor the nursing staff in the intensive care unit at Smilow Cancer Hospital for their dedication and care. Donations should be sent to the Yale School of Medicine, P.O. Box 7611, New Haven, CT 06519.