PAGE 4 OF 6
During the next six years, he mapped out most of the molecular minutiae of the pathway. By then, he was working at a feverish pace—and starting to look over his shoulder a bit. “At that point, I was not easygoing about it anymore,” he says. “I had something I really wanted. I saw that I could crack this problem and I wanted to do it.” That's when a friend gave him the drawing of racing greyhounds. “As naïve as I was, I'm a pretty competitive guy,” he says. “I'm happy not to race, but when I race, I like to win.”
His biggest fear, he says, was that he would be foiled somehow in finishing his project. If someone else got there first, it might cut off support or funding. “It was like I was sitting in front of a canvas and I had conceived of a painting. And I had to paint it,” he says. “And I didn't just want to paint the arm, or the head. I had to paint the whole thing. I was happy to have other greatly talented people right next to me painting the same view. But I had to do my own whole portrait of it.”
The ability to imagine the big picture, and to visualize molecules and processes that are too small to see in literal terms is one of Massagué's unique talents, according to colleagues. “The way he sees things is not always the way in which the conventional scientist sees things,” says Gaorav Gupta, a medical resident at Memorial Sloan-Kettering who was a graduate student in Massagué's lab. Only occasionally, says Gupta, does one get to see from his point of view, usually when all the experiments have been done and it's time to write the paper summarizing the results.
“That's when Joan shines,” says Gupta. “He's able to craft the story as he saw it, probably from the very beginning.” And he's able to draw it. His drawings of scientific processes, says Gupta, are as good as many professional artists'. “I think that's how he's made his career,” says Gupta. “Mechanism on one side, artistic vision on the other.”
As the would-be pharmacist was deciphering the TGF-beta pathway, leading medical institutions in the United States and Europe courted him. He accepted the job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, because he wanted to apply what he was learning to a cause—the understanding of cancer.
With the 1989 move to Manhattan, Massagué says, it became clear that he wasn't going back to Barcelona. His parents were going to have to find someone else to run the pharmacy. And his daughters, Laia and Marta, both born here, were going to be Americans of Catalan heritage. His wife, Roser Salavert, today a district community superintendent in Manhattan's Department of Education, had the foresight to get her doctorate in education, just in case the United States became their permanent home. “We always kept a very open mind,” she says. Massagué had embraced the life of a U.S. scientist.
But he wasn't about to cut his Catalan ties. Both of his parents grew up in villages. His paternal grandfather was the village pharmacist. His maternal grandfather was a farmer and the village ironsmith. Eventually, his father's family moved to Barcelona. His mother was sent there to study to be a pharmacist—an unusual decision for a traditional family.