Family Affair

CMU alum and professor Aaron Mitchell

Aaron Mitchell (S'77) has returned to Carnegie Mellon University as a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

He'd spent 21 years on the faculty at Columbia University Medical Center.

"I have always felt a very close connection to this institution," he said. "I can trace my success in life back to key relationships and courses that happened right here."

Raised in New York City as the son of two Columbia music professors, Mitchell chose CMU sight unseen with the intention of studying math.

But on a whim he took the school's first-ever genetics class. It was being taught by internationally renowned geneticist Elizabeth Jones in the spring of 1975.

"Beth got me totally addicted," he recalled.

Mitchell went on to work in Jones's lab, where he developed a fascination with yeast genetics. Jones passed away in 2008, shortly before Mitchell's return.

Now he is carrying on her legacy — as an accomplished researcher and dedicated educator. At the same time, he is blazing important new trails in the laboratory and classroom.

Mitchell spent years doing basic genetics research in the yeast model. After an inspiring sabbatical at Merck in 1995, he sought to tie his work more closely to human health.

"I'm really oriented toward therapeutic applications," Mitchell said. "I really want to get there, and I think it should be feasible."

Outside the lab, Mitchell serves as director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) programs at CMU. The institute helps provide research experiences for undergraduates.

Mitchell says his reward comes when he sees "the light bulbs go on" on the faces of his students during a lecture.

"There is an attitude of inquiry among the students here that makes this a fantastic place to work and teach," he said.

"They really are curious about what's going on in the world. They want to come up with their own way of seeing things and their own solutions to problems."

These are the same qualities that Mitchell now sees in his own son — and that Jones likely saw in him several decades ago.

It's also one of the factors reaffirming his choice to come back to CMU.

"As you get on in academics, you invest more and more time in your institution, and you want to make sure this extra effort goes to a place that you believe in," he said. "That made it a very easy decision to come here."

Related Links: Mellon College of Science | Remembering Beth Jones

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