selfless in seattle

Actually, this post has nothing to do with Seattle. I just liked the title. The theme, eventually, is science leadership through altruism. But to get there, first I need to relate a story that has been on my mind the past week or two.

It’s a story about my highest cited paper. Which happens to be a single author paper. Yet this paper almost didn’t get submitted.

According to Google Scholar (2 Jan 2017) this paper has 785 citations (579 according to the journal). And though it’s more than 20 years old, it still averages 30 cites per year. The paper reports on a protein fold that has been used in Nature to deliver many different enzymatic functions, and in so doing has evolved the most incredible and beautiful diversity of protein architectures.

It is a most enchanting protein fold. (I may be biased).

Sure, after 20 years the paper is probably in need of an update. But as you might imagine, I am inordinately proud of this piece of work. Especially given that at the time I wrote it, I almost talked myself out of submitting it. Funny how things work out, isn’t it.

Let me explain.

A few years before that paper was published, I solved the crystal structure of a then recently discovered bacterial protein (DsbA) that had no detectable sequence relationship to any proteins of known structure. That information implied that its structure would be completely novel. At the time, I was a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University. The structure determination was challenging, for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say that it required some pretty nifty labwork to wrangle the structure out of that crystal. The important point is that to everyone’s surprise, despite the lack of sequence similarity, the structure revealed that my protein was related to an already characterised protein (thioredoxin). Unexpectedly we had found distant protein cousins – but it wasn’t their DNA that gave their relationship away, it was their shape.

I published the structure determination as a short correspondence – which meant there wasn’t enough space to wax lyrical about the surprising relationship between the two proteins. So I followed up that line of enquiry separately. I collected all the published protein structures that contained that fold, I analysed their sequences, their structures, their similarities and differences, I wrote up a draft and sent it to my two co-authors for comment. One co-author was my postdoctoral supervisor – Prof John Kuriyan. The other was a collaborator who had worked on the structures of some of the distant cousin proteins. By this stage though, I had moved to the University of Queensland where I was setting up my own lab. John Kuriyan had very generously – selflessly – encouraged me to take the project with me when I left his lab. (Thank you John!)

Then came the spanner in the works. John insisted that this structural bioinformatics paper was mine; and that he should not be an author. After John took his name off the paper, the other co-author followed suit. Eek. I was on my own. As a new lab head I had sort of been relying on these two to help me write the cover letter, respond to reviewers’ comments. And, you know, give the paper some cachet. Now, the cachet would be left entirely to me. My first reaction when the two co-authors jumped ship was that they must think the paper was a dud. Such is impostor syndrome thinking.

But needs must – I hadn’t had any papers published for 18 months because of the move to Australia and setting up a lab. So I timidly submitted the paper to a good journal and – surprise, surprise – it was sent out for review. The reviewers were supportive. The paper was accepted with minor changes and then published. The rest, as they say, is history.

This story of my almost-not-submitted-top-paper is front of mind at present because:

• I am writing a grant application that requires me to highlight my ten best papers

• there is an upcoming celebration of John Kuriyan’s 30 years as a lab head

• I am reminded of Prof Ben Barres of Stanford University.

On that last point, I was deeply shocked and saddened by the news that Ben passed away recently. Ben – a renowned neuroscientist – had a unique perspective on equity and diversity. He was openly transexual.

In a 2006 commentary he told the story of how, soon after transitioning, he overheard a colleague say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s”.

I never met Ben, but I felt I had. He was inspirational, a champion of those marginalised in academia. He spoke truth to power.

In one of many tributes to Ben, I noted the words of his former postdoc. “Ben told me, ‘Take this work with you to your new lab, Beth. Nobody can do it better than you.’ Mentors aren’t always so generous about ceding areas of research initiated in their lab to trainees headed elsewhere. But Ben was a very special person. Not only was he an incredible scientist, but he also cared deeply about other people, especially his trainees. We were his kids.

Ben believed so deeply on the importance of this point that he wrote an opinion piece in Nature published in August 2017 while “dying of stage four pancreatic cancer“. He argued that lab heads should let junior researchers take their projects with them when they start their own labs because it drives innovation and discovery. That’s what he did for his team. And JK did for me.

So how about it research agencies and organisations? Let’s incentivise innovation. Enable altruism. Support real leadership in science. Metrics for selflessness now!

Vale Ben Barres

1 thought on “selfless in seattle

  1. Thank you for spelling this out. It really made me see the generosity of two of my mentors (who have given many opportunities/resources that have helped build my career), as well as making me think about my own generosity going forwards. Such an important way to improve the landscape!

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