University News

St. Laurent GS remembered for life of curiosity

Family and peers reflect on grad student’s life of intellectual enthusiasm, work in molecular biology

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Peers and family members remember Georges St. Laurent III GS as intellectually curious and extremely passionate about his life’s work in molecular biology.

“He was a multifaceted person, extremely intelligent. No challenges were too big for him to undertake,” said his brother, William St. Laurent P’16, adding that his enthusiasm for science started at an early age.

St. Laurent, a PhD candidate in molecular and cellular biology, passed away Sept. 25 in Miami at age 54.

St. Laurent graduated from Yale in 1982 with a degree in molecular biology. After graduation, he worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for a few years. He left the exchange after losing his voice due to the loud shouting of interest rates and currencies required by his working in “the pits,” his brother said. Once he lost his voice, he traveled all over the United States searching for treatment options, which sparked his renewed interest in science, his brother added.

Starting in the late 1990s, St. Laurent and his brother managed Vitech America, which was the largest direct seller of personal computers in Latin America at the time, his brother said. While St. Laurent was good at managing the business, he found it a “means to an end,” whereas he found science a true passion and an end in itself.

In 2005, after working in Brazil for Vitech, St. Laurent established the St. Laurent Institute, a medical research organization that he used to publish his research, his brother said, adding that St. Laurent published over 40 papers within the last five years.

Through his work, St. Laurent made a lot of friends and intellectual connections during his lifetime.

“He cultivated these relationships with highly intellectual people around the world … people who were colleagues in the molecular biology area, people in medicine, and it extended beyond just his research. These were people who were enjoying his life with him,” his brother said.

St. Laurent studied under Robert Reenan, professor of biology, during his time at the University as a graduate student. St. Laurent could get anyone “engaged and riled up” about scientific ideas, Reenan said. “It was always great to bounce ideas off of him because he was like an idea factory. Basically, he could take any idea and run with it and explode it out into possibilities that you haven’t even thought of.”

Reenan met St. Laurent while giving a presentation on RNA editing with other scientists, Reenan said. Initially, Reenan expected the people watching the presentation “to be asleep before five minutes” because they found the subject matter less interesting than topics like aging or cancer, he said. But St. Laurent remained “totally animated” throughout the course of the presentation and asked several questions. “Pretty soon, it was actually like a love fest in terms of RNA editing, and everyone was like ‘Hey, what are these weirdos talking about all this stuff for?’” Reenan said.

St. Laurent’s thesis focused on finding RNA editing sites using single-molecule DNA sequencing — a unique research approach, Reenan said. St. Laurent was able to find the largest set of new RNA editing sites — about 4,000 — with his approach. Together, St. Laurent and Reenan published a paper titled “Genome-wide analysis of A-to-I RNA editing by single-molecule sequencing in Drosophilia,” Reenan said.

Through his thesis, St. Laurent was able to determine the two core purposes of RNA editing, Reenan said. One is the rewriting of “recipes” for proteins that work toward the fine-tuning of the brain, while the second is the process of allowing an organism to determine “self” from “non-self,” which has connections to neurodegenerative diseases, he said.

Reenan expressed regret that St. Laurent was really close to completing his degree before he got sick.

“Initially, he thought it was a respiratory thing or something, days before his defense. The thesis committee had his thesis, and we were all set to get together and have a great public seminar and private defense of his thesis, and then he got sick,” Reenan said, adding that he had been looking forward to working with St. Laurent on new research after obtaining his degree.

Reenan said he never thought single-molecule sequencing could be used to find RNA editing sites before St. Laurent researched the approach.

St. Laurent was “very well-read” and would read several academic papers at once on topics that interested him, Reenan said. “He was basically a force of nature. He didn’t care what anyone else said in terms of getting what he wanted to get.”

Yiannis Savva, a postdoctoral research associate in molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry, collaborated on ideas and published four reviews with St. Laurent.

“I will remember when he first started here, his dream was to identify every RNA editing site,” Savva said.

When St. Laurent first started pursuing his PhD, he and Savva both went to Washington to obtain RNA out of fruit flies using a sequencing machine.

“In the car (to Washington), and I remember this vividly, was the first time he was trying to open himself, and just say things like, ‘Oh, what type of music do you like?’ And he would tell me some stories, like when he was in Brazil for a long time,” Savva said.

Savva gave St. Laurent advice on the written and oral part of his thesis just as he was finishing up his research. But when Savva found out that St. Laurent was sick and had postponed his thesis defense, he did not know about the severity of St. Laurent’s illness.

“I kept saying … that I hope everything goes well because I want him to go through the finish line because we’re so close. Everything was in place,” Savva said. “To me that was the saddest part. To me, he was so close to presenting his work, and it never happened.”

The Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life held an informal memorial gathering for St. Laurent Sept. 29, and plans for a formal memorial are in progress, wrote Associate Dean of Biology Edward Hawrot in an email to The Herald.

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