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‘Development of a California Research Organization’: Sanford Burnham Prebys celebrates its history with book

"Development of a California Research Organization" details the memoirs of Sanford Burnham Prebys
“Development of a California Research Organization: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute” details the La Jolla institution’s history and successes.
(Jillian Milam)

La Jolla-based Sanford Burnham Prebys has published a book about its history and successes in medical research, hoping to share its stories widely and continue innovating long into the future.

In “Development of a California Research Organization: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute” (the facility’s former name), authors Nancy Beddingfield, Nina Fishman and Dr. Eva Engvall compiled information about its founding and development.

Fishman’s parents, William and Lillian, started Sanford Burnham Prebys in July 1976 as the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation.

Nancy Beddingfield, Dr. Eva Engvall and Nina Fishman (from left) compiled stories about Sanford Burnham Prebys.
Nancy Beddingfield, Dr. Eva Engvall and Nina Fishman (from left) compiled stories about Sanford Burnham Prebys.
(Jillian Milam)

During a panel discussion at the institute streamed online April 12, Beddingfield, who held many roles at SBP from 1980 through 2007, including director of public affairs, said she “was a privileged witness” to its growth.

Beddingfield thought she was taking a six-month job but ended up staying 27 years.

She called 1980 “a magic year. … The tools of biotechnology or biochemistry were just coming online,” enabling research that helped Sanford Burnham Prebys expand.

Subsequent years saw the institute grow its physical footprint with building additions and new equipment.

Beddingfield, who is not a scientist herself, said the science nonetheless kept her at SBP. “Every day there was no boredom,” she said. “I loved the enterprise, and it’s self-selecting; people who do that really like doing it.”

Fishman said she realized “how much of my family’s culture in a way … became the core DNA of the culture of the institute.”

“Everyone who came here added something to this tapestry,” Fishman said. “What my parents stood for was to create an environment where people could flourish.”

Sanford Burnham Prebys human-genetics professor José Luis Millán, who started work at the institute in 1977, said “the guiding principle for creating this institution was that it was for the scientists and about the science, and everything else was here to support their science” without administrative burden.

Millán left SBP to earn a Ph.D. in Sweden and returned to the La Jolla institute as the only postdoctoral student in the lab. He was told he could work on whatever he wanted and if he succeeded, he’d be promoted to the Sanford Burnham Prebys faculty.

The independence he was granted “affected my entire career,” he said, “because that is exactly the way I run my laboratory.”

Millán said SBP’s success and survival is due to the “principal investigator-initiated” philosophy that “gives you the freedom to do in your laboratory whatever you wanted to do.” The scientists are responsible for finding funding for their projects.

“We pulled together [and did] what we wanted to do, each of us individually and collectively.”

— Hudson Freeze, director of the SBP human-genetics program and the Sanford Children’s Health Research Center

Fishman said her parents wanted Sanford Burnham Prebys scientists to “feel that they can pursue their curiosity.”

Engvall, a professor emeritus who joined the institute in 1979, said the freedom to research without interference or bureaucracy initially gave her pause.

“I’m not sure if I or someone like me in those days could take the risk of joining,” she said. However, “it was a great experience to watch the institute grow and grow and grow,” she added.

Millán said SBP’s insistence on having state-of-the-art facilities is another “fundamental pillar” of its growth. “They’ve done a magnificent job,” he said.

During the institute’s nearly 46-year history, “we pulled together [and did] what we wanted to do, each of us individually and collectively,” said Hudson Freeze, director of the human-genetics program and the Sanford Children’s Health Research Center.

“What we wanted to have is ... an institute motivated by science and generated by the scientists themselves,” he added. “And if we ever lose track of the science as our driving and motivating force, we will disintegrate.

“I think the ideas and principles that created the institute and attracted its scientists will endure more than any scientist, administrator or board.”

To purchase “Development of a California Research Organization: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute,” visit amzn.to/37SROy2.