Prof. Bleen (6_bleen_7) wrote,
Prof. Bleen

Big Science

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, speak about recent work in her laboratory on the genetics of skin color in the zebrafish Danio rerio,1 and I got thinking about one of her ex-postdocs I met years ago as a grad student, whom my friend and I nicknamed “God”, and about how much I detest excessive hype. And about how I'll never win a Nobel Prize.

Our department, flush with ambition and research money, was expanding most of the time we were in graduate school. Every month or so we selected a faculty candidate from the pool of about twenty jillion applicants on file and invited her to “interview”—to visit, deliver a lecture and be interrogated by the faculty about her plans to develop a career-spanning research program. Also, a few of the postdocs and grad students got to have lunch with the candidate. This process convinced me, at just the right time, that an academic faculty position in molecular biology was not for me. (Too bad I didn’t heed my own convictions until two and a half years into my postdoc.)

I applied to grad school at a time when everyone expected a severe shortage of Ph.D. scientists within a few years. As it happened, though, none of the old guard retired when expected, so that by my third year the nation was facing a huge surplus of Ph.D.s. At our lunches the candidates regaled us with stories of sending out three or four hundred job applications, and oh yeah, this was their first interview. Just the thing to make us feel peachy-keen about our career prospects. What’s worse, we knew that sometimes the faculty invited people they already knew they weren’t going to hire—they only wanted an extra speaker to fill out the lecture schedule. Yeah, a few hopeful future scientists were being put through hell with no chance of being hired for the job they were killing themselves to try to get.2 I am not exaggerating. A couple of our interviewees were clearly bordering on nervous breakdowns during their “second lectures” about their research plans, as the faculty grilled them mercilessly about the feasibility of this or that line of experimentation. The department wasn’t exactly trying to impress them with the student/postdoc lunch, either: they issued us each a five-dollar food voucher for the medical school cafeteria and cordially invited us to go nuts. Usually it was a challenge to get enough students to volunteer—starving grad students, remember—to make the conversation interesting.3

But then along came God. We knew, right off, that something was special about this applicant. Word quickly got around that the student/postdoc lunch was to take place, not at the cafeteria, but at an Indian buffet (and four minutes later, a capacity crowd had already signed up). While stuffing ourselves from appendix to epiglottis with sumptuous curries and vindaloos, we gently prodded our guest for clues as to how he had won such favor with our faculty. He didn’t sound much different from the other poor creatures we’d been recruited to entertain shortly before they were ground to sausage during their second lectures. His attitude, however, was different from that of the others we’d talked to. Missing was the air of desperation of a young scientist on the fast track to a career postdoc and its attendant lifetime overwork and poverty. Instead, our candidate was preoccupied mostly with having to decide where he wanted to work. He had submitted only three applications and had received five offers. Not interviews—job offers. Obviously, we were in the presence of no mere faculty applicant, but rather a real boy wonder: an up-and-coming research god.

We eventually ascertained the two relevant facts. First, he was finishing up a postdoc in Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard’s laboratory. Okay, Nobel laureate advisor—that would certainly score big points on a CV, but would hardly confer divinity in and of itself. Second, he had somehow managed to crank out over twenty primary-author papers within a single, regulation-length postdoctoral fellowship. Now how the hell had he managed to do that? His guest lecture suddenly promised to be far more interesting than usual.

The first thing I learned from his talk was that I’d never win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. No way do I have the leadership skills to head a large enough research group. It seems that molecular biology has entered the age of Big Research: truly groundbreaking work requires a vast amount of resources and personnel as much as creativity and insight.4

Prof. Dr. Nüsslein-Volhard did her Nobel Prize-winning work studying the early development that staple of genetic research, Drosophila melanogaster. By the time Boy Wonder graced her laboratory with his presence, she had moved a couple notches up the scale of complexity to the zebrafish. D. rerio is handy for research on embryonic development because the young fish are transparent, so you can watch stuff unfolding and complexifying without disturbing the fish’s innards. Boy Wonder specifically was studying development of the nervous system. He and an army of technicians had “saturated the zebrafish genome” with mutations, meaning that they’d attempted to identify and isolate a different genetic line of D. rerio for every gene in the zebrafish genome, carrying a recessive mutation completely destroying the activity of that gene. This project involved maintaining over ten thousand5 zebrafish colonies, from which a handful were eventually found that had developmental deficiencies in the central nervous system.

I can’t even guess at how much time and effort was necessary to complete such an ambitious project; but the mystery of our prodigy’s twenty journal articles was solved. I imagined that during the day, he stood at one end of a warehouse-like laboratory and beat a kettledrum while, below him, endless rows of technicians slaved over their benches. All in sync. “BOOM…boom…BOOM…boom….” At night, he wrote papers about the results of the day’s labors.

The faculty raved about this guy for a week after his interview. That’s when Weldon and I officially capitalized his g, and began referring to him as “God” during our daily eye-rolling sessions. I had to wonder how well he would adapt to his transition from boss over a fleet of skilled labor to running his own laboratory and teaching and mentoring students and postdocs all simultaneously.

Needless to say, we offered God an assistant professor position. So did the Dept. of Biology on the main campus (we were part of the School of Medicine). In the end, God accepted the Biology Dept.’s offer. We were not exactly a world-class research university, but as it happened, we unknowingly held a trump card: God liked to ski, and we had world-class ski resorts within an hour’s drive from campus.

What I took home from this experience was really a lesson in dichotomies. Our faculty either panned our assistant-professor applicants—usual case—or went berserk trying to cajole them into working for our department, as with God and one or two others (“demigods,” in our parlance). There was no middle ground. I’ve seen enough of the same in other departments and institutions to think it may be a universal tendency—not always so strikingly obvious, of course—in making hiring decisions for new faculty. I’ve noticed that people do the same in making major purchasing decisions.


1thus bringing my total live Nobel laureate lecture attendance to two, not counting Mario Capecchi, who had not won a Nobel Prize yet.

2The really slimy thing about this practice was that invited speakers are traditionally paid a modest sum, an "honorarium", for their time. Faculty candidates spoke for free, though they did get their travel paid.

3Some of our lunchtime chats were actually fun, when the applicant was unusually relaxed. At least once we got carried away and wandered into definitely inappropriate territory. On second thought, that conversation was too disgusting to relate here.

4The same is true of my current field, genetic epidemiology. Check the number of authors on a typical paper describing a genomewide scan for genetic variants affecting a common disease, such as diabetes, in a prominent journal like Nature Genetics. The necessity of recruiting gigantic numbers of study participants to detect genetic determinants for “complex traits”—heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, etc.—has made common the multi-center consortium, bringing together several groups at different research institutions. More and more, the institution is named as the author, and an author list of individual people is relegated to an appendix.

5“How many colonies?” [basso voice] “Ten…thousand.” Name the movie.
Tags: general_science, genetics, rant

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