Enhancing science

I have been thinking about cooperation and open communication lately and how they are so important for our science. I wrote in a past column about how much my career has been helped by others outside my lab and their amazing generosity. But even more, I have been helped by all the people in the lab. Ed Kravitz, the Harvard neurobiologist, starts his talks with a line that is both generous and honest: “When I say ‘I,’ I mean ‘we,’ and when I say ‘we,’ I mean ‘they.’”

Science, no matter how it is portrayed fictionally, is really a team sport: people working together. And, in the best situations, everyone contributes. To give the most recent example from my lab: over this last year we have been screening C. elegans mutant strains for drug sensitivity and resistance. The screen is very simple: compare the responses of mutagenized and wild-type animals on plates with different drug concentrations. A great project, or so I thought, to train undergraduates. Three undergraduates joined the lab, got trained in the methods, and began to characterize the strains. Soon, by observing how the worms actually responded to the drug they were studying, the students completely altered our definitions of how the animals reacted to the drug and how mutations changed that reaction. So, the project was a great learning experience, but for me.

In fact, science really advances through the back-and-forth of scientific discussion. And these discussions are important for everyone. Sydney Brenner, my postdoc advisor and one of the founders of molecular biology (and, of course, C. elegans research), was one of the most original and brilliant thinkers I have ever met. He always developed his ideas by talking them out (sometimes endlessly) with one other person. For much of his career that person was Francis Crick, but later several others served as his intellectual sounding boards. (Sydney was renowned for hunting down these people at all hours and often late into the night, whenever he wanted to talk with them. I know of one person who would hide when he heard Sydney coming down the hall, so he could get his own work done.) No one works alone.

Early in my career, I would sometimes keep quiet about results, but I soon learned that every time I decided to tell someone about what I was doing, they gave me great ideas that I had not thought about. I gained much more by sharing. Now I gab to whomever will listen.

And we can share in many ways, reading and responding to manuscripts posted on preprint servers (as I have suggested before), exchanging ideas with people at meetings (a reminder that the ASCB Annual Meeting is coming up in December), and finding out what friends in other labs are doing. In this last context, I have always been impressed with the way that Arthur Kornberg in Biochemistry and later David Botstein in Genetics organized their departments at Stanford: graduate students and postdocs were assigned random desks, so labs were a mix of people from different research groups. Because of this arrangement, information spread rapidly throughout the department.

For this communication to really work there must be a variety of views, experiences, and perspectives. Several years ago, I Googled “Famous scientists.” To my dismay, the first 25 images were all white scientists, and only two of them were women (Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin). For years, I have given talks comparing that image with a slide showing people who have recently been in my lab. These sabbatical visitors, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and technicians have come from Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Peru, The Gambia, United States, and Vietnam. Each has added uniquely to the working of the lab.

To some of you, all that I have written may seem too naïve and optimistic. I am not saying that scientists don’t compete with or envy one another. I do feel, however, that sharing benefits science and moves it along. When the C. elegans field began, Bob Edgar started the Worm Breeders’ Gazette, a newsletter where people shared their results with others months (and sometimes years) before publication. In fact, this newsletter was where we first told people about GFP. The discovery of the genes mutated in Huntington’s disease and ALS were stimulated by funding contingent on scientists sharing their results as they got them and publishing as a group. And the public effort to sequence the human genome set the gold standard of sharing by making their sequencing results available to the world daily. What we need now are more efforts to enhance sharing. I would welcome suggestions that I can include in a future column.

In this column I have tried to make the argument that sharing is both characteristic and critical to good science, that our work is enhanced by the perspectives, knowledge, and efforts of others. For this reason, we need to support one another. In this regard I am very proud of the efforts by the Women in Cell Biology, Minorities Affairs, LGBTQ+, and all of the committees at ASCB for increasing the participation of the greatest number of people in cell biology. To name the most recent effort, and for which I would like your help, I’d like to mention the work of Kevin Wilson and our Public Policy Committee. Over the years, they have promoted policies to help foreign scientists working in the United States obtain visas and green cards. As some of you may know, a conference committee in the U.S. Congress is now considering legislation that will pave the way for foreign students to obtain green cards after they have finished their PhD studies in the United States. Your support in urging Congress to adopt this measure is very important. An advocacy alert is available in the ASCB Online Community and, if you are a member, can be read here: https://community.ascb.org/discussion/contact-your-senator-ease-immigrations-hurdles-for-international-scientists. I urge you to add your voice. These students, and all our students, add so much to what we do. They deserve our support.

About the Author:

ASCB President Martin Chalfie is University Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University.