Morning in the molecular oncology lab: The students and postdoctoral fellows make their way to the conference room, where they help themselves to bagels and doughnuts, cereal and fruit, coffee, tea, and shrimp cocktail. Harith brings the shrimp cocktail, says postdoc Nishant Agrawal, poking fun at one of his colleagues in the laboratory, which is run by senior scientists Bert Vogelstein and Ken Kinzler.
The communal mealarranged by group members on a rotating basisoffers the 20 to 25 trainees in this bustling lab a chance to convene and chat about their lives and their latest experiments. In addition to the daily breakfast buffet, lab members meet twice a week to share their data and discuss what theyve been doing for the past couple of months. Although each person in the lab works on his or her own project, the gatherings help cement the sense that the group works as a team.
Everyone has a slightly different philosophy, but were all working toward a common goal, says Harith Rajagopalan, an M.D.-Ph.D. student and the alleged bearer of shrimp cocktail. And the diversity of the group members, he notes, is a plus. Because we all do such different things, you can actually learn something in lab meetings, he says. Other people in the lab can raise things you wouldnt have thought of on your own.
Having such a large teamthe Vogelstein-Kinzler lab includes three junior faculty members in addition to the traineesis unusual in the biomedical sciences. But you need a group effort to tackle the big problems, notes Shibin Zhou, an assistant professor in the lab. Were trying to cure cancer. I dont think any individual can achieve that. In our lab, everybody helps everybody else, and theres minimal competition.
Except, perhaps, at the pool table in the laboratory lounge. The common areas in the Vogelstein-Kinzler lab are packed with such pricey playthings, including a Nintendo setup, satellite TV, and a drum kit and several guitars. Lab members have access to symphony and baseball tickets and to a beach house owned by Kinzler and Vogelstein. The lab even has its own logo emblazoned on T-shirts and on the wrappers of complimentary mints.
Its the little things that make us feel appreciated, says postdoc Kurt Bachman. And the group hugs, adds postdoc Gio Traverso, as he loads his plate with the Chinese food that Kinzler ordered for lunch. Yeah, thats always nice, agrees Bachman.
Ken and Bert take such good care of us, adds Rajagopalan. But even Vogelstein has his limits. Bert wont let us drive his wifes convertible, says Traverso, pretending to pout like a spoiled child. And thats just wrong. Thats pure selfishness.
In truth, the trainees value their mentors generosity. Bert and Ken know that we generate data, and they cant pay us a lot of money, says Bachman. Student stipends and postdoc salaries are notoriously meager. They know that we are the engine that runs the lab. They appreciate us and they listen to our ideas.
And then shoot em down, adds Rajagopalan.
Kidding aside, vigorous discussion is part of the scientific processa good way to hash out theories or experimental design. And Vogelstein and Kinzler happily dive into the intellectual scrimmage.
We all constantly talk, exchange ideas, and argue, says Zhou. Indeed, Vogelstein suspects that the kids in the lab pit him against Kinzler purposely. The trainees come to me and get one view, says Vogelstein. They go to Ken and get another. Then they just do what they want.
The students and young scientists in the Vogelstein-Kinzler lab do work hard. They have to. Bert insists that we work 15- to 20-hour days, jokes Bachman. Actually, the trainees work at their own pace. Their main objective is to get results. And when it comes to putting in the time, says Traverso, Bert leads by example. He is by far the hardest working person in the lab. In fact, when new people join the lab, says Bachman, theyre told, Dont even try to work harder than Bert.
Indeed, doing science can require long hoursand be quite tedious. The greatest part of the day is taken up with very monotonous work, says Traverso. Preparing cell cultures, purifying DNA, measuring protein activity, and sequencing genes are all highly repetitive tasks. Youre only creative once in awhile, says Rajagopalan. The rest of the time youre just doing the same thing over and over again.
Of course working in a lab has its benefits. We get to listen to music, says Bachman, who was in the music biz before cutting his hair and joining the lab.
We dont have to dress up, we dont have to shave, we dont even have to bathe, adds Traverso.
And we get to tinker, says Rajagopalan.
Its like playing a computer game, says Zhou. You get to figure things out and have the satisfaction of winning the game. And if you can do something to benefit the world, thats a bonus.
And the process itself can be fun, says Zhou. Science is not just about saving the world. Its also about having fun.
Its kind of neat to find out why stuff happens, says Bachman. Like, why does a person get a disease? The answers, they hope, will ultimately benefit cancer patients. When you think about your project, you really do think about the people in the hospital across the street. You think about what its going to do for patients in 5 or 10 years, says Bachman. I mean, were trying to cure cancer. Thats something.
Photos courtesy of the Vogelstein-Kinzler Laboratory
Working with Bert Vogelstein
Bert is amazing, says postdoctoral fellow Nishant Agrawal. Hes brilliant. He reads everything. He knows everything. But hes humble. You can talk to him like a friend.
Bert enjoys doing hands-on work, says assistant professor Shibin Zhou. Not long ago, he published a paper on digital PCR. He was the first author, and Ken was the second. Thats it. Bert developed the techniques and did all the experiments himself. Its hard to find a scientist of his stature who spends so much time in the lab. I cannot think of a second example.
Bert likes jokes, and he likes to have fun. He likes to interact with young people, says Zhou. Sometimes I think he still has a childs mind. Its one of the things that makes Bert a good scientist.
Bert and Ken are like the Rolling Stones of cancer biology, says postdoc Gio Traverso. Theyve been kicking butt for the past 20 yearsand theyre still going strong.
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.