Shirley Tilghman becomes Emeritus Professor

Written by
Office of Communications, Princeton University
July 7, 2020

Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

From the Office of Communications on the Princeton University Home Page. 

Professor Tilghman was instrumental in the molecular cloning of the first mammalian genes at the National Institutes of Health, in particular the mouse beta-globin gene, which provided significant insight into the regulation of gene expression. At the Institute for Cancer Research at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, she and her team characterized enhancer sequences in the DNA that allow tissue specific regulation of the expression of the two genes, which was another important step in the understanding of eukaryotic gene regulation.

She joined the Princeton faculty in 1986, soon after the newly built Lewis Thomas Laboratory opened. In 1988, she also became a member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. At Princeton, she continued her research focus on her longstanding interest in the control of gene expression in developing mouse embryos, and launched her now textbook analysis of parental imprinting in mice.

Tilghman was one of the founding members of the National Advisory Council of the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health. She served on the National Research Council’s committee that set the blueprint for the U.S. effort in the Human Genome Project. Launched in 1990, this multinational project resulted in the publication of the first draft of the human genome in 2000, a watershed moment that provided an extremely valuable resource for biologists working in many fields, ranging from evolution to development to cancer.

Throughout her career, Tilghman was exemplary in serving the larger scientific community, for instance, chairing the Molecular Biology Study Section at the National Institutes of Health; joining scientific advisory boards and committees of the Jackson Lab, the Whitehead Institute, and Genentech; serving as a trustee of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Rockefeller University, as well as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; and becoming the founding chair of Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute.

At Princeton, her teaching was highly praised; in 1996, she received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. She initially taught classes in her favorite subject, developmental biology, but she also became fascinated with interdisciplinary teaching on public health policy, which she pursued rigorously and to consistent high accolades from the students, in collaboration with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (formerly the Woodrow Wilson School). She also enjoyed teaching freshman seminars, where she could pass on the excitement for modern approaches in biology to the next generation of aspiring scientists.

Tilghman served as the first woman president at Princeton from 2001-13. Her legacy as president is far-reaching and distinguished by major achievements in many areas: an 11% increase in the size of the undergraduate student body; the launch of the four-year residential college system, with Whitman College opening in 2007, and a significantly transformed Butler College in 2009; a major increase in the number of undergraduates on financial aid and in the amount of aid awarded to them; the establishment of important new academic programs and facilities, including the Lewis Science Library, the Lewis Center for the Arts, the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, the new Frick Laboratory for the dramatically strengthened Department of Chemistry, the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM), the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and the Center for (now Department of) African American Studies.

Another focus of her administration was the development of international programs. This work began with the creation of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS). Among other efforts were the creation of the Bridge Year Program and the Global Seminars, the expansion of other opportunities for undergraduates to engage in study and work abroad, and programs to build ties between faculty members and their colleagues at foreign universities. During her presidency, the five-year Aspire Campaign, which ended in 2012, raised a record $1.88 billion. After retiring from the presidency, she returned to the faculty in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Tilghman is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the Royal Society of London. She has served as a member of the Harvard Corporation, a trustee of Amherst College, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, and as a director of Google Inc. Among her many honors are the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (2002), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology (2003), and in 2007, she was awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions to her field.

A native of Canada, Tilghman earned her B.Sc. degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, worked for two years as a secondary school teacher in Sierra Leone in the Canadian University Services Overseas Program, then earned her Ph.D. studies at Temple University.