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In memoriam: Carolyn Walch Slayman, Ph.D.

Renowned geneticist and administrator was a pioneer among women in science

Photo by Terry Dagradi
Carolyn W. Slayman, a member of the Yale School of Medicine faculty for nearly 50 years, is warmly remembered as a pioneering woman of science, skilled administrator, and mentor to young scientists.

Carolyn Walch Slayman, Ph.D., deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs at the School of Medicine, Sterling Professor of Genetics, and professor of cellular and molecular physiology, died on December 27 at Yale New Haven Hospital. She was 79, and had been undergoing treatment for recurrent breast cancer.

Slayman was a faculty member and leader at the medical school for almost 50 years. While she was steadfastly humble about her accomplishments, her career was characterized by a series of firsts. She was the first woman to head a department at Yale School of Medicine when she was named chair of the Department of Human Genetics (now Genetics) in 1984. In 1995, she became the school’s first deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, and 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 who have passed through our doors,” says Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “We depended on her judgment and wisdom to help guide every major decision.”

After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1958 with highest honors in biology and chemistry, Slayman earned a Ph.D. in biochemical genetics under Nobel Laureate E.L. Tatum at Rockefeller University, where she was the only woman in her class. As a National Science Foundation Fellow, Slayman did postdoctoral work in membrane biochemistry at Cambridge University.

Following a brief stint as assistant professor of biology at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve), she joined Yale as assistant professor in the departments of microbiology and physiology in 1967. She helped to establish the graduate program in the nascent Department of Human Genetics in 1972 and served as director of graduate studies in genetics from 1972 to 1984. 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.

As deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, she focused her attention on faculty recruitment and development, and the creation and advancement of research programs and core facilities—including the Yale Center for Genome Analysis at the West Campus—and was instrumental in Yale’s applications for many institutional grants, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical and Translational Science Award. Slayman spearheaded the renovation and modernization of the medical school’s laboratory space in an effort to create a collaborative environment that fosters the sharing of ideas.

“One of Carolyn’s strengths was that she never had any personal ego stake in an outcome, other than what was going to be the very best for the institution,” says Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D., president of Rockefeller University and former chair of the Department of Genetics at the School of Medicine.

A renowned scientist, Slayman was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 1995. She was recognized for her research on the proteins that transport nutrients across cell membranes and the genes that code for those proteins. She served on numerous scientific boards and panels, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientific Review Board and the NIH Panel on Scientific Review.

Slayman, who was passionately committed to the training and education of young scientists, became a mentor to many, relishing the opportunity to guide their research and careers. Megan C. King, Ph.D., associate professor of cell biology, notes that Slayman was instrumental in her earning an Early Outstanding Investigator Award, which sustained King between grants, enabling her to move from yeast to animal model systems in her work on the role of a mechanotransduction pathway in cardiomyopathies and generate data that will allow her to continue this research. “She gave advice,” King says, “which is a skill that most of us don’t have but which is increasingly important.”

The School of Medicine plans to hold a public memorial for Slayman in the coming weeks.