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There comes a defining moment for many scientists that divides their lives into before, and after. Neil Ganem remembers that moment. He was a PhD candidate at Dartmouth Medical School, with vague ideas of studying “some sort of neuroscience.” He thought he might pursue Parkinson’s disease, which had killed his father. But then came Duane Compton’s black and white movie.
Compton, a professor of biochemistry at Dartmouth and interim dean of the college’s medical school, has studied cell division for more than 20 years. In particular, he studies something called chromosome segregation—how cells separate their DNA into two equal heaps before dividing into two daughter cells. “We want to know how this works so well in normal cells, how they segregate so perfectly every time they divide,” Compton says. Each fall, he presents his research to aspiring Dartmouth PhDs, starting with a simple movie of cell division. “It was just one cell,” recalls Ganem. “You could see the nucleus and then you could see all the chromosomes. You could see them all move around, line up perfectly, and then suddenly that one cell pinched into two.”
The gritty, grainy movie mesmerized Ganem. Then Compton spoke. “Why do we study this?” he asked the assembled students. “Cancer. Cancer is just a disease of cell division gone wrong.”
“And that’s all he said,” recalls Ganem. “And that’s all I needed. I was hooked.”