In the freezer of Carolyn Walch Slayman’s lab, her chief lab technician Ken Allen stored vials of cultures from her graduate school days studying biochemical genetics at Rockefeller University. They were set aside by her mentor, Nobel laureate E.L. Tatum, Ph.D., as a memento of what she had accomplished. Allen, who worked with Slayman for 42 years, planned to present them to her upon her retirement. Sadly, that day never came.
Slayman passed away on December 27, 2016, during treatment for recurrent breast cancer, leaving a legacy that will have a lasting impact on the School of Medicine. She was 79.
“It is difficult to overstate Carolyn’s influence on the School of Medicine and the many individuals that have passed through our doors,” said Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “We depended on her judgment and wisdom to help guide every major decision. She will be greatly missed.”
Slayman, the medical school’s first deputy dean for scientific affairs, Sterling Professor of Genetics, and professor of cellular and molecular physiology known for her own groundbreaking research, came to Yale as an assistant professor in 1967. She had graduated from Swarthmore College in 1958 with highest honors in biology and chemistry, becoming the first scientist in her family. She earned her Ph.D. at Rockefeller, where only one woman was admitted to each entering class of 15. At a dinner at the home of the president, a classmate asked why this was so. Five decades later, Slayman still incredulously recalled the response: “Because that’s the right number.”
After postdoctoral work in membrane biochemistry at Cambridge University as a National Science Foundation Fellow and a 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. She helped to establish the graduate program in the nascent Department of Human Genetics in 1972, serving as director for 12 years. She was nonplussed about being the first woman to head a department at the School of Medicine when she became chair of the department (now genetics) in 1984. “It still surprises me that there weren’t more women chairs back then,” she said in a 2010 interview.
In 1995, Slayman became the school’s first deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs—the first woman to hold a deputy deanship. She was a behind-the-scenes leader renowned for her strategic vision on matters ranging from faculty recruitment to interdisciplinary collaborations. “Both the department of genetics and in a larger sense the School of Medicine were shaped in major ways by Carolyn,” said Arthur L. Horwich, M.D., Sterling Professor of Genetics and professor of pediatrics.
On a yellow legal pad, Slayman would diagram her thoughts, creating a strategy for solving the problem at hand. As deputy dean, she helped to create and advance research programs and core facilities—including the Yale Center for Genome Analysis at the West Campus. “At Yale, we believe that if we want to pursue something, we must understand the underlying mechanisms,” she told Andrew Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics, by way of explaining why she was keen to recruit a basic scientist to the Yale Stem Cell Center. She was instrumental in securing funding for and helping to oversee many institutional grants, including the more than $53 million National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Award. Her efforts also included spearheading the renovation and modernization of the medical school’s laboratory space to create a collaborative environment that fosters the sharing of ideas.
“One of Carolyn’s great strengths was that she never had any personal ego stake in an outcome, other than what was going to be the very best for Yale,” says Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D., president of Rockefeller University and former chair of the Department of Genetics.
Another of her passions was recruiting and nurturing faculty members. “She was always interested in knowing what the bottlenecks for junior faculty were and what support they needed to thrive at Yale, but she was also interested in me as a human being,” said Valentina Greco, Ph.D., associate professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Faculty Scholar.
“What I remember most fondly about Carolyn were the stories about her family,” said Daniel Colón-Ramos, Ph.D., associate professor of cell biology and neuroscience. She never failed to ask about his wife and triplet daughters, he said. “As impactful as Carolyn was in my career, now, looking back, what I remember most and will miss most were those stories, which made me feel so much a part of her family, including the Yale community.”
While she was famous for knowing everything that went on at the medical school, Slayman was also known for her attention to detail. She once spent an hour helping Horwich find the best spot to place an incubator, and advised Xiao that he’d put his audience at ease at an upcoming presentation if he wore a sweater instead of a suit.
A renowned scientist, Slayman was recognized for her work on the biochemistry of membrane transport. Using pink bread mold and yeasts that make beer, wine, and bread, she discovered the mechanism by which the enzyme yeast plasma membrane ATPase transports nutrients from the outside to the inside of cells. She utilized classical biochemistry, modern microchemistry, and new genetic techniques to show that H+-ATPase functions in much the same way as other cellular systems that pump sodium, potassium, and calcium ions.
Her research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for over 35 years, but she eventually relinquished NIH support to devote more time 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 Earl Grey tea with Allen, her lab technician, who knew not only how she liked to conduct her experiments, but also how she liked her tea—light, with the tea bag dunked three times. That ritual highlights the sense that many had of Slayman: She was above all a colleague who took the time to listen.