Yesterday two guys won a well-deserved Nobel for over thirty years of work that broke the code of how cells sense the world around us and talk to each other.
At the risk of giving up pseudonymity altogether (and putting a wax seal on my retirement), I thought I’d share a personal anecdote. With a postdoc career of four years and change I’m still a journeyman scientist, perhaps towards middle age as postdocs go. At my level an invitation to speak at a big conference still leaves you excited and a bit intimidated. So last year I showed up, prepared and quite nervous, for a major panel organized to honor Robert J. Lefkowitz, one of this year’s winners. To get a sense of how not-totally-surprising is yesterday’s news, before his keynote speech that opened the eponymous panel the session’s moderator, a Lefkowitz trainee who has gone on to chair a major department himself (many of his 200-plus trainees have done that), handed Dr. Lefkowitz a round bronze medal on a ribbon and stamped with an important scientist, in this case a guy who helped found the field of pharmacology. It was all very subtle.
Dr. Lefkowitz spoke about how he helped establish second messenger theory, how he discovered and cloned G protein coupled receptors, showed how they work and finally proved that GPCR signaling gets ‘arrested’ by a small family of proteins called arrestins, a model that more or less everyone now associates with his name. Then he spoke about new ways that people have used his arrestin model to make drugs that treat cardiac problems and a list of other complaints with less negative side effects. One of his trainees-turned-department chair then delivered a powerful talk along similar lines, and then another one. Together with that bronze medal, these guys made a flying wedge of science that demolished any doubt that this arrestin model is critical to problems that sicken and kill a whole lot of people.
A few talks later I stood up and said something to this effect: “you don’t know me, and you probably never heard of my advisor, but today I hope to convince you that the Lefkowitz model is, at least in some cases, wrong”. The talk itself comes back as a blur. That tends to happen with me, but also I was coasting on zero sleep, seeing double and nursing a vicious hangover thanks-very-much to some of you very people. However, practicing the hell out of it worked out well. From what I hear it came across not that bad.
You can imagine I was a bit nervous about the Q&A. There were (and are) still plenty of holes in our science that the titans in the front row could use as a jumping-off point to render the flesh from my bones. Worse, they could have ignored me. As per protol the moderator, a Lefkowitz trainee, went first with not so much a question as a suggestion for how my model’s weakest point might be resolved. His idea had occurred to me, but there was yet no data for it and it would take a lot of balls to cover up my model’s biggest weakness with pure hand-waving in that room. I said thanks and we would look into it (we did, you’ll have to wait for the answer…) but I could have kissed him. After that everyone stood up at once, and then Dr. Lefkowitz stood up and everyone sat down. His question was skeptical, as it should be about new and crazy-sounding ideas, but his tone said ‘convince me.’ I can not emphasize enough how his attitude helped set the tone for most communications that we have received since.
So congrats from this corner of the ‘net to a great mind of science, who trained many more, and whose critical but (whew) openminded attitude exemplifies the best qualities of a scientist and scholar.
c u n d gulag
You’re lucky, if Republican Jesus was in this scientists place, he’d have mocked you, and had his followers stone you to death for heresy.
If there’s one think Conservatives hate more than open minds, it’s the people who have them, and question their dogma’s.
As a totally different kind of scientist in a totally different area, I really enjoyed this post. It is always invigorating to see in action the open-mindedness and clarity that are the signal differences between just-OK and great.
I like this active retirement you’ve settled into, Tim.
Sounds like a pointy-headed elitist stuck in the ivory tower, to me.
The best are always (well, not always) like that. I have my own story of a Nobel laureate who made me feel at ease in another high-pressure situation. I could have kissed him…but I didn’t.
Maybe I’ll get to tell it sometime. It’s quite the funny story.
Sister Machine Gun of Quiet Harmony
He sounds like a fantastic scientist! Congratulations on having that opportunity! I am glad it went well.
But they didn’t answer the important question: Which cell won the debate?
Public spankings in science are so polite!
One guy said, in effect, “you got more work to do” and Dr. Lefkowitz essentially said “I heard what you said in prepared remarks, but you’re not there yet.” Much better than being snarked off the stage*. But in the end, these scientists are secure enough to let you have your challenge, push you to try to make a better case, and if you end up being correct, it won’t be because they did not have a part in it either.
Nice story, thanks!
* there’s just such poor cognitive quality in our political players that we watch for sport…
@decitect: You seem to be expecting a lot for an idea that has three papers behind it (Nature Chem Biol x2 and PNAS). Do you think that they would hoist a white flag? Yeesh.
It’s great, and sadly a bit rare, when people who are very competent are also very decent.
I also read about David Wineland co-winning the Physics Nobel, he sounds like a great guy too. And OMG is a federal worker!
TimF: That is a really great story. One of the reasons I like science–the facts have to support your theory. Not all scientists are as generous to their colleagues, so congrats to Dr. Lefkowitz both for his Nobel and for being such a great example of how to move science forward, by being open minded, generous to colleagues, and yet skeptical and honest about the work.
Tim, loving your new retirement. Keep it up. How’s Max?
a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q)
Great story and thanks for sharing it. Please keep you retirement in its semi stage.
Um, didn’t you forget a photo?
THis is great, Tim. The good ones, that is to say, the scientists who love science, which means honoring and aiding those who try to do it, are great.
My own recent experience of this: my students made a film about Wolfgang Ketterle’s work; Ketterle (physics Nobel for his work on Bose Einstein Condensate and ultracold matter) came to the first showing of the film. After seeing it (a short — about 6 minutes) he told the students that they had got the science right, that they hadn’t dumbed it down, and that he was going to post it at his website and could he please use it at his talks.
They were over the moon, and I was deeply grateful for his kindness.
Good folks do good.
Glad you had a similar encounter.
Higgs Boson's Mate
Meeting and talking with Linus Pauling on an airline flight was as close as I ever came to science greatness. Love reading about it, but my math skills end with trigonometry. OTOH, one of my best friends has a couple of advanced degrees from MIT. He works hard to stay current and he’s always willing to provide answers to my science questions.
David in NY
Too bad all debates (not to mention, comment threads) don’t seem to be like that.
Between Lefkowitz’ Nobel and the chance of becoming bowl-eligible for the first time in 18 years, it’s a good week to be a Dookie. One of his postdocs who is also a former Cameron Crazy wrote a great little piece about him at dukebasketballreport.com. Apparently he is also a great teacher and mentor.
Lefkowitz’s h-index is 183, which is mind-numbingly insane.
Does this mean that Michelle Malkin will be inspecting your counter-tops in the near future?
Culture of Truth
Science! What has science ever given us?!
Lefkowitz has to be a Democrat.
Republicans don’t believe in the Nobel prize.
No outrage over this anti-science denier winning a Nobel Prize for Medicine?
Ethical Stem-Cell Researcher Wins Nobel Prize for Medicine
His research should be banned for not following the consensus not awarded a Nobel.
@WWStBreitbartD: You sort of missed the whole point here. Your fee-fees don’t change the science.
Tim, have you ever had any interactions with Brian Kobilka? From the occasions I had the opportunity to witness him in person, Lefkowitz struck me as a bit of a reserved guy, while Kobilka always seemed more like a totally down to earth fellow.
I had thought the Nobel might already have passed by Lefkowitz, while Kobilka, with his pioneering single molecule work on the BAR, still looked like a strong contender. Nice to see they were both rewarded. A bit like the Nobel committee recognizing both Gilman and Rodbell when they awarded the Nobel for G proteins.
No, clearly there’s no outrage over it at all. This is the part where a normal person would realize that they were WRONG and change their views.
Of course, what St. Brietbart would D (as always) is shoot himself full of heroin and drop dead in the middle of the street, so get cracking.
I suspect our friend was attempting to give snark a try.
It kind o failed because the enforcement of not deviating from mainstream clearly is an overwhelmingly conservative core value.
I like when Tim posts more. If he retired a couple more times he might post daily.
Hah Tim — isn’t the internet grand, you and I travel in the same circle…
This Nobel was a foregone conclusion, the question that many of us muttered about was who would go with him, it was nice to see Kobilka’s work acknowledged. As someone who prescribes the drugs that interact with these pathways daily — it was a great choice.
As I said to my scientist husband yesterday AM, “American Exceptionalism, Bitchez” — I hope those oh-so-clever wingnuts don’t get to used to these science Nobels because the way things are going at the NIH, NSF, DOE, etc., Bob’s work wouldn’t be funded now… and that Ryan-Romney budget would be a knockout blow.
Sitting on peer review committees at present is a sickening experience as you watch people’s careers go down the chute.
But, hey, anything goes to keep the 1% tax-free.
Another Halocene Human
That’s a nice story. It’s always good when scientists behave like adults instead of children. He probably wasn’t in a position where his career would go to hell if you were right.
I wonder if anyone has studied how funding and labor arrangements affect the progress of science.
Tough to get a control in there, like planetary ecosystems, but not impossible–like comparing the economics and finance of multiple countries.
I’m taking a quick break from teaching, so in lieu of getting some tea, I’ll just say KICK! ASS! TIM! Well done with the research, the presentation and the decent attitude towards getting constructive criticism, and kudos to the mensches in the audience with similar decency.
This is a great story. Research, like any human endeavour, has its share of pompous assholes, but the best are more interested in learning yet more cool stuff than propping up their own egos.
David in NY
@Comrade Jake: Hadn’t known about the “h-index.” Interesting. More informative but less fun, maybe, than a mathematician’s Erdos number.
Great story, and great to have a Tim F sighting!
Thanks so much for posting that wonderful story. I am always fascinated by how scientists communicate their ideas and how those ideas are received. This validates my sense that scientists have enough gravitas to speak civilly to one another even in adverse conflicts, unlike most of our political discourse today.
Great story. Thanks very much for this. Encouragement and collegiality, very important. This kinda dovetails with the recent google doodle celebrating the birthday of Niels Bohr, who was also famous for listening to and cultivating the talents of younger scientists.
Discouragement can be a mighty fire of inspiration, too.
I also like how Nobel winner John Gurdon took some time to single out a high school teacher who thought he would be a failure:
Funny how things work out.
I don’t know about that. I’ve met and interacted with about half a dozen Nobel Prize winners, mostly after they had done the work that won them the prize but before they actually won it. Most of them were fine, decent people; only one was a real prima dona jerk. These days, at least, nobody gets close to a Nobel Prize in the sciences by themselves. Every big name scientist has an army of research assistants, lab techs, administrative staff, etc. behind them, and it’s hard to get that army pointed in the right direction if you aren’t willing to acknowledge their contributions along the way. That need to have and acknowledge a huge staff of helpers tends to keep scientists’ egos at least a little bit under control.
This is SO exciting! My former boss, until she retired, was mentored by Lefkowitz, and our lab frequently communicated with Brian Kobilka. Yea, G protein-coupled receptors!
BTW, I would have posted higher in the thread, but I’m on my first day of chemo,and the first drugs knocked me out.
And turn their back on SCIENCE and CHOICE!!!
No progressive admits they are wrong on Science to anti-science rethugs
Coroner’s report says Andrew Breitbart died of heart failure
My husband was terribly dyslexic as a child and it took him a long time to learn how to read. A few years ago his mother ran into his first-grade teacher at a community gathering in Manhattan and inquired about him somewhat gingerly (his mom said she clearly expected to hear that he was pretty disabled). My mother-in-law brightly informed her that he was a chemistry professor at a major university and doing quite well, thank you. Great moment.
When someone invents the infallible plasmid cloning method, they should get a Nobel Prize immediately.
When someone invents the infallible plasmid cloning method, they should get a Nobel Prize immediately.
Bob showed up at Duke a few years before Coach K and before I left. I recall him as friendly. Good news!
Anyone who drinks with this crowd needs their head examined.
It’s nice to hear a good story about scientists.
Great story, great Tim sighting, as someone called it up thread.
Perhaps you can be persuade to give us a simple thread with a Max photo tomorrow? It would surely help soothe us as the MSM uses words like “serious” to describe Ryan.
Acronyms shall be defined when first used:
“G protein coupled receptors (GPCR)…..”