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While others played football or a musical instrument in high school, says Randy Schekman, “I watched rotifers crawl around.”
Schekman's passion for science has prompted bold action at other points as well—and his audaciousness has paid off. His initial research proposal was so daring, experts trounced it, yet the strategy produced results that have earned him some of the most prestigious awards in biomedical science. Now an HHMI investigator at the University of California, Berkeley, Schekman has illuminated the mechanism by which membrane-bound sacs shuttle proteins within and out of cells. The system provides a way to organize enzymes into unique work stations and avoid cellular chaos. A host of normal activities— for example, insulin release, nerve-cell communication, and growth-factor export during embryonic development—depend on this trafficking process. Defects in it underlie many human diseases, some of which Schekman is studying.
His dedication to science extends beyond his lab and outside his field. He has spearheaded change in professional societies, at major journals, and on his university campus. “Randy has repeatedly taken on huge social responsibilities for science,” says Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences. “He takes on positions because he thinks he can make a difference. But that requires a lot of work and a lot of personal sacrifice.”
Schekman can't pinpoint the origins of this drive to serve, but he thrives on it. “I've had the benefit of the scientific enterprise and I feel that those who are capable have to stand up so that young people can have the same benefits. I'm well organized and am capable of doing it, so I do it. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it.”
Schekman's predilections surfaced early. Wandering around science fairs during junior high school “really turned me on,” he says. “I liked the feel of it—people doing their own things, competing for awards.” In 8th grade, he set up metal-capped honey jars in his bedroom, each containing a different type of dirty water. In this makeshift lab, Schekman grew protozoa and then used a toy microscope to see which creatures flourished best in which types of scum.
After winning several county science fairs, he took fifth place in the California State Science Fair, an achievement for which Vin Scully, announcer for the L.A. Dodgers, interviewed him on television. Schekman was thrilled. “I had hit the big leagues,” he says. “I was a Dodgers fan and he was It, Mr. Dodger.”
Schekman first figured he would be a doctor, he says, “because I didn't know any better.” When he was an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, The Atlantic Monthly serialized James Watson's new book, The Double Helix, and Schekman found himself diving into each installment. “Then I knew,” he says. “None of this medicine for me. Working in a lab … really resonated with me.” Realizing that he needed biochemistry “to get to the depth of what I was interested in,” he apprenticed with master biochemist Arthur Kornberg while a graduate student at Stanford University. Kornberg knew how to “relentlessly dissect a problem,” Schekman says.
He got more out of the Kornberg lab than lessons in how to tease apart a biological process and reconstitute it from its parts. There he met a postdoc named Bill Wickner, who introduced him to two central figures in his life: Nancy Walls, whom Schekman later married, and the process of membrane assembly. Late at night, Schekman and Wickner ran experiments, played Scrabble, and plotted how to probe this emerging field of research. Schekman became intrigued by the notion that he might study membranes with the techniques Kornberg used to untangle the intricacies of bacterial DNA replication.
Photo: Mark Richards