Outside on this humid July afternoon, an oppressive heat combines with the noise of road traffic and an Amtrak passenger train rolling through Wallingford, Conn. But inside a nondescript one-story building here, all is dim and cool. Richard A. Flavell, Ph.D., a School of Medicine scientist who heads one of the world’s top programs in immunology research, is in a recording studio laying down backing vocal tracks with his wife, Madlyn.
Clanging guitars and a vocal sound reminiscent of 1960s-era Kinks ballads fill the mixing booth. On the other side of the glass, Flavell is singing the harmony to a tune decrying the state of the American health care system. You can spend all your money in a week or two, to extend your life for three, he croons. Then it’s on to the next track—penned by a bandmate, cell biologist and former Yale colleague Ira Mellman, Ph.D.—which pays homage to DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, who died young with scant recognition of her role in the discovery of DNA’s double helix.
The resulting album of songs inspired by biology will be the second by the Cellmates, a band Flavell and fellow scientists at Yale formed in 1991, several years after he came to New Haven to head the Section of Immunobiology. Back in the late 1950s, when he was discovering rock and roll as a young teenager in the English county of Norfolk, no one would have mistaken him for a budding academic, he says. “I was a totally unmotivated student,” a situation that changed when he took chemistry, brought to life by an exceptional teacher when Flavell was 15.
After earning bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in biochemistry at the University of Hull in the north of England, Flavell held a series of academic posts in Europe before finding himself at age 36 in Cambridge, Mass., heading the research division of biotechnology pioneer Biogen, Inc.
His switch to biotech and back makes him unusual among academic scientists. “It used to be that you made the jump in one direction; you never came back,” says Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs. “He’s done it, and he’s been extraordinarily successful.”
Immunobiology at Yale is regarded as one of the top programs in the world, ranked No. 1 in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2006 Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, which counts scholarly publications, citations of those papers by other scientists, grant dollars, awards and honors.
Flavell, a Sterling Professor at Yale and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, runs the department in a way that invites participation and leads to group decisions. “Richard is very good at gathering information, building consensus and then making a decision,” says colleague David G. Schatz, Ph.D., professor of immunobiology. “It’s very inclusive. He’s not afraid to make a decision that will make someone upset, but he’s extremely good at building agreement.”
The department he leads now numbers 13 primary faculty. Flavell’s own lab employs more than 30 people working on a combination of projects funded by HHMI, the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2005, Gates awarded Flavell $17 million to engineer a mouse with a human immune system, a tool that will allow scientists to more readily conceive of and test potential vaccines.
Meanwhile, there is life outside the lab—gardening (Flavell cultivates several hundred species of rhododendron on five acres surrounding his home in Guilford, Conn.) and, of course, music. Science may be a lot harder than three-chord rock and roll, Flavell says, but there are moments in a band that rival those in science, when collaboration and synergy create something that no one person could have done on his own. Plus it’s a good release: “I like rock and roll,” he says. “It’s part of my existence.”