A Welcome Season

Jörg Meyer

It’s hard to write this column when the world outside my door continues to change so quickly. I’ve delayed as long as I can, but on this hot afternoon in August, the procrastination has to end. Covid-19 still fills the news. Vaccination rates have risen, happily. But so, too, has the insistent strain known as the Delta variant, sending us into yet another phase of uncertainty. I’d like to say something timely, but what will have changed in the month between when I write these words and when you read them?

Still, the current uncertainty feels different, less overwhelming; I think it’s because we’ve been heartened. We’ve recovered parts of our lives — both the dear and the mundane — that had been lost for so long. Many of us are having meals with friends again. There’s some travel. We are preparing to resume commutes, return to the office, dust off the furniture and computers that sat untouched for more than a year. On campus, professors are again crisscrossing College Walk and students are returning to classrooms. The start of the fall semester typically brings a shot of new-pencil optimism and resolve to make it a good year, and this September is no different. Indeed, we have never been so ready to make it a good year.

We welcome this season of return with a commemorative CCT cover; inside the issue, we feature three alumni who have each in their way broken new ground.

Biochemist Samuel Sternberg ’07 is an expert in CRISPR, the revolutionary technology that enables gene editing with relative ease and precision. (Scientists have likened it to placing a cursor next to a typo and deleting a single letter.) Now, several years into overseeing his own lab at Columbia, Sternberg is on a path of innovation: His research into so-called “jumping genes” could show them to be even better than CRISPR for gene editing. We profile this home-grown scientific star, who graciously welcomed us into his lab for a conversation about his team’s pioneering work.

We also introduce Alana Mayo ’06, who is marking one year as the president of Orion Pictures, the recently rebooted division of MGM that is focusing exclusively on underrepresented voices. With the studio’s first film in production — and at a time when Hollywood is prioritizing diversity at all levels of movie-making — she’s poised to redefine what it means to make intelligent, inclusive, forward-thinking cinema. Here, the longtime film buff opens up about her career path and influences, as well as her ambitions to transform an industry.

Finally, Jean H. Lee ’92, JRN’95 is a former foreign correspondent with a remarkable story to tell: She founded the Pyongyang bureau of the Associated Press in 2012, making the AP the first international media with a full-time presence in North Korea. Lee recalls the enormous challenges that came with reporting in the notoriously repressive country, yet the word she ultimately uses to describe the experience is “illuminating.” Read our feature to understand why.

I’d also urge you not to miss our back page, where we’re thrilled to publish three portraits by the great 20th-century painter Alice Neel of her sons, Richard Neel ’61, LAW’64 and Hartley Neel ’63. Alice, who was the subject of a major retrospective at the Met this past summer, in fact had many Columbia connections, and immortalized a number of alumni, faculty and neighbors in her works. We share more paintings online, along with the exclusive stories behind them.

Welcome to all our CC’25 parents reading CCT for the first time. And to all of us, welcome back. May the subway ride to 116th Street never feel so uniquely notable again!

Alexis Boncy SOA’11