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“Embryonic stem cells have to be tended and fed every day. They don’t know about weekends or holidays,” says Phil Smallwood, a research technician for 18 years in the laboratory of Jeremy Nathans, an HHMI investigator at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who studies the mammalian visual system.
“When I’m actively working with the cell cultures, I’m here seven days a week. I have been here Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day,” says Smallwood. “This is why Jeremy trusts me: he knows that it will get done and it will get done correctly. These cells are going to be turned into a mouse. I won’t cut corners, because Jeremy is basing his reputation on the conclusions that he will draw from these mice.”
“Extraordinary experimentalists” is how Nathans describes Smallwood and research specialist Yanshu Wang, another essential lab team member. “They have the same relationship to doing experiments that Itzhak Perlman has to playing the violin.”
For Smallwood, who has created 40–50 mouse lines in Nathan’s lab—transgenics, knock-ins, knockouts—the musical analogy is apt: away from work, he is an accomplished flutist. “You always have to practice—you can’t rest on your laurels. It’s the same in science. You always have to keep learning new techniques, advancing with technology, or you’ll get left behind.”
Smallwood also draws on another analogy to explain the craft of science: cooking. “The first time you make a cake, you follow the recipe. It’s the same with an experiment: you can’t change a variable right away. But after doing it for many years, you get a feel for how the cell behaves, for what works and what doesn’t. Take something as simple as pipetting an enzyme back and forth, such as in trypsinization, a process to chemically separate cells. I was originally taught that you add the trypsin once and place the colonies in the incubator. But the colonies don’t completely break up. I found that if you pipette the trypsin back and forth a few times and then put the colonies in the incubator, it’s like night and day. It’s a little trick that goes a long way.”
The co-inventor of 10 patents—beneficiary of Nathan’s uncommon largesse in sharing professional recognition—Smallwood doesn’t feel like an unsung hero. Yet while he appreciates the recognition, he doesn’t crave it. “The students, they come in, find a project, get published, go on for a postdoc, look for a job. I’m content to be in the background. Jeremy arrives in the morning and there I am at my bench. I’m a constant. I’m with Jeremy for the long haul.”
Illustration: Chris King