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Remembering Carolyn Slayman

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Spring


Faculty and administrators remember a beloved leader in the YSM community.

When Carolyn Walch Slayman, PhD, was named chair of the Department of Human Genetics (now Genetics) in 1984, she was the first woman to head a department at the School of Medicine, and the second at Yale University. That she didn’t expect the news to make a big splash—it was a front-page story in the New Haven Register—is typical of the matter-of-fact attitude that helped characterize her extraordinary life as a pioneer, scientist, and leader.

Slayman was an iconic figure at the School of Medicine for almost 50 years. Career-defining moments that others might have dwelled upon, Slayman took in stride. Besides becoming the first woman chair at YSM, she was the only woman in her class when she earned her doctorate at Rockefeller University in 1963; the medical school’s first deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs; and the first woman to hold a deputy deanship at YSM. As the Sterling Professor of Genetics and a professor of cellular and molecular physiology, she was recognized for her research on the biochemistry of membrane transport.

Her influence on the school and those who have walked its corridors is far-reaching. She helped scores of colleagues, both junior and senior, in countless ways, large and small. Whether it was navigating career advancement, writing a successful grant application, supporting an annual retreat for junior investigators, or finding space for an incubator, she took the time to devote her full attention to resolving the problem at hand. She helped create and advance myriad research programs and core facilities, and spearheaded the renovation and modernization of the medical school’s laboratory space. She also was instrumental in securing funding for and helping to oversee many institutional grants, notably the National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Award, which has brought over $150 million to the school since 2006.

The School of Medicine recently established the Carolyn Walch Slayman, PhD, Professorship to honor Slayman’s memory. Beyond this fitting institutional recognition of her contributions, there was an outpouring of grief, recollections, and tributes when she passed away in December 2016. A small selection of these appear here.

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It is her ability for relationships, to hold a seemingly unlimited number of people in mind and truly know them and their stories that stands out, perhaps above all. Even when she was deep in thought in her office working at her computer (and sitting in her very low chair suited just for her), she was always ready to say hello, hear a concern, or share a story. She had a remarkable ability to see the strengths in a person, to see the possibility where others saw only what was wrong, and to be always accepting and encouraging even as she accepted their—and all of our—frailties. And she could remember the smallest detail about a person’s story while holding the big picture always clearly in focus.

Linda Mayes, MD
Chair, Yale Child Study Center; Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology

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In virtually every meeting with her I learned something about leadership, about how to treat people with respect, how to have difficult conversations, when to say yes, and how to say no, gently, but firmly.

Steven Girvin, PhD
Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics & Applied Physics; former Deputy Provost for Research

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Over the years, whether it was working toward some impossible grant deadline or speaking about how to support one of the superstar junior faculty—one of her favorite topics—she was always guiding me, helping me to find my voice, helping me to find my way.

Tesheia Johnson, MBA, MHS
Chief Operating Officer, Yale Center for Clinical Investigation

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In the mystery that is this journey that we are all sharing, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to share part of my journey with her.

Daniel Colón-Ramos, PhD
Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience

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For me, she was a valued confidante and advisor. Almost every major decision I had to make, I would think about it, decide what I wanted to do, and then talk to Carolyn about it. And I knew that if she agreed with me, then I was making the right decision.

Robert J. Alpern, MD
Dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine

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She was a class act. She “died with her boots on” so to speak ... never complaining and engaged ’til the end.

Marna Borgstrom, MPH
Chief Executive Officer, Yale New Haven Health

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Carolyn was a constant, caring force at the medical school, the nucleus that held our center true.

Amy Arnsten, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience and of Psychology

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Brilliant voice of reason who always knew the right thing to say.

Jeffrey Bender, MD
Robert I. Levy Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) and Professor of Immunobiology

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To be such a scholar and such a leader and such a lovely person is a rare combination.

Linda Lorimer, JD
Former Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives, Yale University

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She brought a sense of honesty to everything in her tranquil focus on our work and our character. She made us all better. One feels a kind of hole in thinking of her absence.

Jon Butler, PhD
Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History & Religious Studies; former Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

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She was always so interested in both our scientific and personal journeys throughout our careers, something I think each of us in the YSM family will always remember fondly.

James Duncan, PhD
Ebenezer K. Hunt Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and Professor of Biomedical Engineering

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It is hard to adjust to a world without Carolyn. I sorely miss her wit, her wisdom, and her warmth. I am incredibly fortunate to be among the many, many people at Yale who have benefited from her brilliant presence as a mentor, a colleague, and a valued friend.

Lynn Cooley, PhD
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; CNH Long Professor of Genetics; Professor of Cell Biology and of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology; and Slayman’s first recruit as Chair of Human Genetics

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She was extremely warm, calm and always had a broad perspective and a human touch to all her communications. The key to every university is keeping people at every level inspired and engaged. I think we need more people like her. She will be dearly missed.

Valentina Greco, PhD
Associate Professor of Genetics and of Dermatology and Cell Biology

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Carolyn was always a joy to work with. The part that always stood out for me as one of her strengths was that she never had any personal ego stake in an outcome other than what’s going to be the very best for the institution. I think that ability to see the big picture of institutional goals and how to maximize the benefit for the entire institution was one of her greatest strengths and something that I always valued in Carolyn.

Richard Lifton, MD, PhD
President, Rockefeller University