Graduate Program

For our students, the scientific journey is just beginning on the day they leave Rockefeller. Our philosophy of teaching—which provides freedom and independence as well as gentle guidance and mentorship—is designed to nurture confident, capable scientists. Many go on to become global leaders in academia, industry, business, and policy.

Stefano Di Talia joined the faculty of Duke University in 2014 to study how cells keep time. It’s a basic question in biology, related to how they divide properly, maintain their shapes, work together, and perform specialized functions. Stefano’s new lab is taking several approaches to its work, using tools from physics, molecular biology, genetics, and chemistry.

But before he came to Duke—indeed, before his postdoc at Princeton University—Stefano was a Rockefeller scientist. He joined Rockefeller as a Ph.D. student in 2003; was trained by Fred Cross, a geneticist, and Eric Siggia, a theoretical physicist; and graduated as a proud member of the class of 2009. At Rockefeller, Stefano and his colleagues developed new approaches, based on sophisticated cell imaging, data analysis, and mathematical modeling, to investigate how cells monitor their own size. The research he conducted has helped to shape a more refined understanding of how cells divide, both during normal development and in diseases such as cancer.

Physics first

Growing up in Naples, Italy, Stefano originally went into physics, intrigued by its inherent reliability. But while working on his undergraduate thesis, he became interested in how physics might be used to solve biological problems. In what he now considers a turning point in his career, he met Rockefeller’s Marcelo Magnasco, whose lab builds mathematical models to study neurological functions and other phenomena. Marcelo encouraged Stefano to apply to Rockefeller’s graduate program, where students are not limited by the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines.

“I knew almost nothing about biology when I came to Rockefeller,” Stefano says. “But I was in the best place possible to change fields and learn new things. My naiveté never seemed to be a problem.”

He chose a very challenging question to address in his thesis: How do growing cells sense when they are big enough to start dividing? “This is a fundamental problem in biology, yet at the time, not many scientists were thinking about it,” Stefano says. “I was encouraged to be bold, to venture into unknown territories, to just go for it.”