Dear Justice Wetzel,
I am Professor of Microbiology and Associate Dean of Graduate Students at the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University. I have been Oliver's Ph.D. research advisor from the time he joined my laboratory as a graduate student in 1988. Having interacted with Oliver nearly every day since I became his mentor, I have been impressed by his brilliance, productivity, and personal qualities. At the time of his arrest on December 5, 1996, Oliver had completed his research for the Ph.D. degree in Microbiology, had written his doctoral thesis, and was scheduled to defend his thesis to the faculty on December 20, 1996. I am deeply shaken and saddened by the verdict, and I am writing to respectfully request the Court to reconsider the verdict or to impose the most lenient sentence possible.
I first met Oliver in March, 1982, when he was a junior at Hunter College High School. He had become interested in the serious problem of antibiotic resistance and the DNA elements (plasmids) that transfer antibiotic resistance genes to sensitive bacteria, and he asked if he could meet with me to discuss my research. Oliver came highly recommended by his teacher, and his PSAT scores were in the top 1% of the country. When we met, I was immediately impressed by the depth of his knowledge. I gave him a small monograph on "Plasmids" and some journal articles, expecting that this would be difficult reading for him, but hoping that he might learn some general aspects of the work and our approaches. I did not expect him to return for a long time, but he called within a couple of weeks to meet again. He arrived with a list of specific questions about the experiments, and it was clear that he had read the entire monograph and had understood the journal articles to a remarkable degree. I was quite impressed and accepted him to work in my laboratory that summer. He made good progress working on his own project to develop specific plasmid cloning vectors for recombinant DNA research. He then wrote a Senior Thesis on this work for his Advanced Placement Biology course and received an A.
Oliver was accepted into the combined Bachelor's and Master's Degree program at the University of Chicago, where he simultaneously earned both degrees in four years. When Oliver was considering graduate school, I strongly urged Oliver to apply to our program at Columbia. I was very pleased that he did, and he was accepted into the incoming class of 1987. Graduate students choose their Ph.D. research advisors at the beginning of their second year in the program, and Oliver chose my laboratory in September of 1988. I was delighted to have him as a member of my group.
After joining my laboratory, Oliver had an immediate and significant impact on our research. Oliver designed an unusual research problem that allowed him to combine his computer expertise and deep interest in information analysis with molecular genetics to understand what information is encoded by DNA. Remarkably, Oliver's interest in combining these two skills predated the Human Genome Project and its resulting emphasis on the need to process and analyze the massive quantity of DNA sequence now being generated, which will take decades to understand. It is unusual for an individual so skilled in computers and information theory also to have a sophisticated knowledge of molecular genetics. These rare individuals who can speak both the language of computers and genetics are in great demand. They are critical to the development of the powerful tools needed to understand the information content of DNA and proteins.
As part of his Ph.D. research, Oliver developed two powerful programs for the analysis of DNA. One was a novel program for a type of analysis that had not previously been automated. One of his first applications of the program detected an error in an important calculation done by another laboratory that was about to be published in a scientific journal. Oliver also used this program to help him analyze an unusual region of the DNA that my laboratory was studying. Contrary to what we were thinking at the time, Oliver predicted that the DNA did not code for a protein, as we had assumed, but instead coded for an unusual RNA that may have unprecedented ability to control the expression of other genes. Oliver then did a series of convincing genetic experiments to prove his first prediction: that a protein was not involved. He then obtained strong preliminary evidence for the existence of the RNA he had predicted. This work was in progress at the time his studies were interrupted by his arrest.
Oliver developed a second computer program analysis of DNA and proteins that was more powerful, faster, more flexible, and easier to use than existing programs. His new program can search for subtle of hidden information patterns in DNA and protein sequences. Using this immensely powerful tool, Oliver was able to identify signals in the DNA that were not detected previously in our analyses. Once again he proceeded to prove his predictions with solid genetic and biochemical experiments.
Oliver has the remarkable ability to use computers to reveal information in DNA that is hidden to most molecular biologists. His studies allowed him to identify the probable activity of a protein, whose structure was known but whose function was not. Oliver predicted that the protein was able to bind single-stranded DNA. He then did a series of unequivocal genetic and biochemical experiments to prove his prediction. His work, which was presented at scientific meetings and published in scientific journals, overturned incorrect conclusions previously published by other laboratories. His further analysis indicated the evolutionary relatedness of other single-stranded DNA binding proteins, and led him to discover a unique DNA sequence motif associated with the genes for these proteins in wide variety of bacterial species. We are currently attempting to understand the function of this motif.
In addition to his dedication to his own work, Oliver was always generous with his time, willing to help others with the analysis of DNA and protein sequences, and often volunteering to do the analyses for them. Even during their development, Oliver's programs have proved to be valuable to the work of other members of my laboratory and to workers from other laboratories. Oliver was also highly sought after by faculty, students, and staff of the Health Sciences campus at Columbia to solve a number of computer hardware and software problems. Often these requests were a considerable burden on his time, but Oliver never hesitated to help, nor did he request any compensation.
Oliver spent more years in my laboratory than any of my other graduate students. There are two important reasons. The first is that he was pursuing a number of different projects, some not directly related to his Ph.D. thesis work. He was intrigued by these projects, and he wanted to solve them. One such project, for example, was completely unrelated to his thesis work and took six months to complete. It was published in the prestigious Journal of Molecular Biology, with Oliver as first author. The second reason is that Oliver spent a considerable amount of time helping other individuals, both in my laboratory and in other laboratories, with their analyses.
Several of Oliver's projects also were to have been written for publication in scientific journals at the completion of his Ph.D. thesis. Even while on leave of absence during this difficult past year, Oliver was able to complete his analysis of a recent discovery he had made. He wrote and submitted a manuscript, which was accepted and published last fall in the scientific journal Plasmid. Oliver's long commitment to basic science research on the minimal salary of a graduate student is truly remarkable. Oliver's computer skills would have allowed him to earn at least four to five times as much in the private sector.
The body of scientific work completed by Oliver has wide-ranging applications. The computer software he has developed is a powerful tool for reading human, bacterial, and viral chromosomes to identify genes and predict what work they do in the cell. This is the essence of genetics - and it is particularly important to biomedical research, where we hope to identify genes involved in cancer, genetic diseases, and infectious disease, so that we can develop strategies for controlling or eliminating these diseases. Oliver's biochemical and genetic studies on genes and gene regulation on an antibiotic resistance factor have an immediate effect on our understanding of how antibiotic resistance becomes so widespread among bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is an exploding worldwide crisis, and already there are examples of lethal bacteria that are resistant to all know antibiotics. Oliver's work on the factors that spread these resistance genes among bacteria will help provide the basis for designing drugs that interfere with this spread.
I very much enjoyed having Oliver as a student. We talked about his work and exchanged ideas nearly every day for the nine years he was in my laboratory. I looked forward to our meetings. He was a significant intellectual force in my laboratory, and his ideas and comments sparked our group meetings. Oliver was interactive and well-liked by the students and post-doctoral research scientists, not only in my group but also in other laboratories. He was a charter member of the Graduate Student Organization and remained active in this organization throughout his time at Columbia. Interactions with Oliver were always pleasant. I never saw him angry, and only rarely did he display any annoyance. Whenever Oliver critiqued the work of another student, it was always done with a gentleness and sensitivity to the feelings of the recipient, particularly with more junior students. I have seen Oliver become embarrassed when a student was inadvertently made uncomfortable by his comments.
My own observations of Oliver over the several years that I have known him lead me to believe that he is not capable of harming or injuring anyone. The Oliver that I know has never demonstrated any characteristic or subtle quirk to indicate that he could be a danger to anyone. In addition, Oliver has demonstrated his potential to be an enormously creative and productive member of society. It is for these reasons that I am immensely saddened by the verdict. I respectfully request that you consider these comments in deciding Oliver's future.
Thank you for your attention.
Very sincerely yours,
David H. Figurski, Ph.D.