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.