Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Unlikely Road to Here

What does a kid who’s only goal was to go to medical school and be the world’s best cardiothoracic surgeon do when he flunks second semester organic chemistry? It’s not a question I was ever prepared to think about much less answer. I suppose that’s what happens when everything seems to come easy to you, until one day it doesn’t.

In those days at Texas Tech, most premed students majored in biochemistry with a minor in biology. I found myself halfway to a degree in biochemistry with no clue what to do with it when I graduated. The obvious but undesirable answer was to sell drugs to doctors for some big pharmaceutical company – how humiliating for the kid who was going to be the next Michael DeBakey. As part of my degree plan, I enrolled in Undergraduate Research 4000 thinking I would get a taste of the research lab which I somehow envisioned was different than the laboratory coursework I had experienced. This is when my path first crossed with Dr. Robert W Shaw, at least I think it was our first significant interaction. It turned out to be the beginning of a 30-year friendship that lasts to this day.

My undergraduate research experience didn’t turn out as I envisioned. Bob asked me and my two cohorts to forego working in the lab for working in the library. We each had a list of journals and topics that were relevant to his interests and we were to go to the library each week and scan the journals for the topics at hand and bring back citations for any relevant papers. Well, that’s an easy “A.” As it turns out, that undergraduate “research” experience turned out to be critical to my professional development. First, it gave me a broader exposure to science outside of whatever essentials we covered in classwork. Reading those papers opened the world of science beyond the old lessons of the textbook to the frontiers of biochemistry. Second, and perhaps more important, it got me into the habit of keeping up with the current literature and thus the cutting edge of scientific research. Even as I started graduate school and into my postdoc work, I made it a point to go the library each week and scan my favorite journals.

During that year, I decided that instead of pushing pills to doctors, I would go on to graduate school and decided to stay at Texas Tech. My intention was to work with Dr. Shaw and so I started out in his lab. However, when it came time to choose a lab for my doctoral work, my friends and I chose the new professor in the department who worked on “cancer research,” much sexier than enzymology! Bob took this news in stride and agreed to be on my doctoral committee.
No matter your plans, life has a way of working out differently much of the time. Despite my working in another lab on my project, Bob ended up giving me lots of input and advice on my work. It was in his graduate courses where my love of biophysics was born and blossomed, an interest that lasts to this day. But perhaps the most important lesson of my graduate experience had little to do with science and everything to do with ethics in science.

My first project in graduate school involved trying to stop the enzyme that HIV uses to multiply. Since it was an enzymology project, Dr. Shaw was involved with guiding me through the work. It started off well with exciting results, but soon things got complicated and I ran into a seemingly insurmountable wall. I dropped the project and moved on to what became my thesis project. Near the end of my time in grad school, my future postdoc secured, my graduate advisor placed a manuscript for publication on my desk. It contained the work from my first project. However, the data were cherry-picked to support the initial observations and all the negative data omitted. I was told that if I didn’t submit the paper with my name as an author, I could not graduate.  I knew I could not let this stand and went to Dr. Shaw and he counseled me to go to the department Chair. Bob knew the work almost as well as I and understood that this was unethical. My doctoral committee met and decided that the paper could not be published and that I could graduate. It was a scary ordeal for a soon to be Ph.D. and I would not have survived without Bob’s support.

I learned yesterday that Bob is retiring after a long distinguished career. As I sit here at my desk and think of journey over the last 30 years I can honestly say that I don’t think I would be here if I had not had the good fortune to cross path with Dr. Shaw all those years ago. He passed along to me his love for biophysics – how biological processes are controlled by the laws of physics – which led to my lifelong love for how proteins are put together. He taught me how to always ask the right questions, the big questions, the ones whose answers matter. He reinforced that it is always OK to stand up for what is right in science. From him I learned that I should not be the constraint on my own possibilities, that my own little world wasn’t all there is and that I can have an impact in the bigger world.

Bob started off as my teacher, then my mentor, and along the way became a good friend. I have tried along the way to pass along those same lessons to the many scientists who have passed through my various research groups through the years. If I have had half the impact that he has had on my career, then I count myself both successful and fortunate. Thank you my friend for all you have done for me and the many others that have crossed your path. Well done! Enjoy your retirement!