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Member Memoir: Richard Rifkind

Member Memoir: Richard Rifkind

Medical Doctor, Scientist, and Filmmaker

by W. M. Akers

By age thirteen, Richard Rifkind was beginning to worry about his future. Following the party celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, he convinced his family physician to take him along on his evening round of house calls. Before morning, the inquisitive boy was set on becoming a doctor. The practice of medicine eventually led him to basic biological research at the lab bench, a distinguished career at several of New York's most respected research institutions, and, finally, in his retirement years, to the cutting edge of documentary film.

After time in the army, and with degrees from Yale and, in 1955, from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Rifkind taught at Columbia, where he led an overhaul of the curriculum designed to provide medical students with a stronger and more relevant grounding in the scientific and research elements that supported their clinical experiences.

"We are now in an era of enormous growth in scientific knowledge," Rifkind told his medical students. "The practice of medicine must keep up with it!"

In 1984, Rifkind was appointed Chairman and director of the legendary Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, where he presided over a complete overhaul and diversification of the Institute's research faculty towards making the organization "more advanced and adventurous." His own laboratory work now focused on control of malignant cell growth, leading to a new class of chemotherapy, as the affiliated Memorial Hospital set goals of applying developmental biology to the treatment of cancer.

In the 1990s, as a participant in high level discussions among New York's leading scientific institutions, Rifkind was able to convince his colleagues that "to make this city able to compete for the finest research talents, we must collaborate in providing the most advanced scientific technology." This led to the formation of New York Structural Biology Center, a trend-setting consortium of ten biomedical institutions and the creation of a world-class, cost-efficient cooperative core facility, ultimately representing public investment of close to $100,000,000.

That talent for large-scale management challenges caught the eye of the New York Academy of Sciences, who in 1993 recruited Rifkind to serve on their Board of Governors. "We are very grateful to Dick for his years of service on our Board of Governors," says Academy President Ellis Rubinstein. "The Academy is incredibly fortunate to have been able to draw upon someone of his stature, who could bring to the role not only a profound understanding of the scientific process, but also the accumulated wisdom of years of experience in leading complex global organizations." Promoting a strong interest in the public understanding of science, Rifkind also served on the boards of the New York Academy of Medicine and the New York Hall of Science.

Farther afield, Rifkind took an adventurous leap into film making, seeing the documentary as a way of awakening public concern for the terrible impact of mass tourism on a dearly loved city, Venice, where he had a second home. Working with his wife, Carole, an author and architectural historian, he produced and directed The Venetian Dilemma, a film about a city that the New York Times' review of the film noted as "being admired to death" that was shown on public television and film festivals in the U.S. and abroad.

"It amazed me to learn that making a film is very like doing science," Rifkind says. "It's a continuous process of asking questions and solving problems. You can't let yourself give up." Upon retiring from Sloan Kettering in 2003, he set out to make a film that encourages youth to enter the world of science. Together with Carole and his camera crew, he spent several years in repeatedly shooting the experiences of three young scientists in training in a laboratory at Columbia University, not knowing if the students would fail or succeed in their projects. With a good deal of dramatic tension, one of the students achieves a remarkable success. The film received a top award from the National Academy of Science, was broadcast around the world, and is used as a teaching tool in dozens of universities. One message of the film is that "Failure is an essential step in the pathway to success."

"As the Academy launches programs like the Junior Academy, which will impact children all over the world, Dick remains an inspiration," says Rubinstein. "His combined success in science and filmmaking remind us that creativity is an essential ingredient in STEM."

Rifkind is impressed by the GSA and the Junior Academy, a project he called "beautiful," saying that if you want science to continue, "you have to invest in the young."