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Float Like a Butterfly, Train Doctors Like a Medical School

The author (top left) and members of The Realm of Sound

A recent post on the Facebook page of the Historical Society of Rockland County made me think of the genetics of butterflies…and about this medical school. The message, which was posted on March 2, 2018, noted that 50 years ago, the following article appeared in the Journal News, the county’s local newspaper: “The ‘Realm of Sound’ group will be featured at a teenage dance to benefit the United Cerebral Palsy fund March 9th at the Tiger’s Den, Spring Valley.” The post included a photo and identified the members of the group as, standing, from left, Bob Marion, Robin Ratner and Richie Wolfe; front, from left, Andy Ruthberg, Larry Klein and Andy Berg.

There I was in the upper left, a 15-year-old, just short of my sixteenth birthday. I barely recognized myself in that shirt and tie and V-neck sweater; had it not been for the drumsticks in my hand, I might not have realized that that guy was actually me.

But it was me. Same nose. Same ears. Staring at the picture, I realized that the me of today was already contained in the 15-year-old me in that photo; I was just waiting to get out.

All of which made me think of butterflies.

Most of us learn as children about the wondrous process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly: how this plain, unpretentious, wormlike creature stops eating, hangs itself upside down from a twig or a leaf and spins itself a little house. Within the safety of this chrysalis, the caterpillar then produces enzymes that essentially help it digest itself into a glob of proteinaceous material. Then, using the raw materials left over from this digestion, the creature reassembles itself into a beautiful, dazzling butterfly, ready to emerge, fly away and join its colony.

The geneticist in me knows that the most remarkable part of this metamorphosis is that from the moment of its conception, all the instructions necessary for this transformation are already contained within the DNA of the caterpillar. The events that follow are all programmed in those genetic blueprints, with genes switching on and off automatically by following unknown signals. Though environmental factors such as the animal’s nutritional state and the amount of sunlight available can alter the timing of some of these events, everything that’s needed to build the butterfly is contained within the confines of the caterpillar.

And the same is true of us.

That 15-year-old drummer in the Realm of Sound with the big nose and the large ears, getting ready to play for the United Cerebral Palsy fund-raiser, contained all the ingredients necessary to produce this 65-year-old medical geneticist. Similarly, the infant born in the displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany, in 1946 who immigrated with his family to Manhattan at age three was already destined to become the brilliant, diffident dean of a medical school in the northeastern United States. The young man working in his father’s coffee shop at the hospital of Albert Einstein College of Medicine was programmed to become the friendly, gregarious executive dean of that same medical school.

Montefiore Medicine and Albert Einstein College of Medicine are many things. But at our heart, we are a colony of butterflies, a group of more than 20,000 individuals from different backgrounds who have lived through a wealth of experiences to make us into who we are today. Though disparate in many ways, we’ve come together to accomplish the same goals: to perform cutting-edge research, to educate the next generation of leaders in medicine and the biomedical sciences and—perhaps most importantly—to care for the people of our community. Like a colony of butterflies, we are diverse and colorful…and beautiful.

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