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During this period, Schekman also honed his mentoring style. He would choose a problem and then spur people to solve it together. “Every person was working to purify a single protein but no protein worked by itself, so everyone had to mix their proteins together,” says David Feldheim, who earned his Ph.D. in Schekman's lab and is now at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
While encouraging collaboration, Schekman nurtured his trainees' individuality as well. “In group meetings, Randy would come up with an idea and people would say, 'That's nuts!'” recalls Ray Deshaies, a former student who is now an HHMI investigator at the California Institute of Technology. “Other [principal investigators] might have pummeled the opposition into oblivion, but Randy didn't need to do that. He let people have their own intellectual presence and ideas.”
These traits, as well as an impressive ability to juggle the different parts of his life, made Schekman a terrific role model, says Nina Salama, another former Ph.D. student who is now at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. “He was equally dedicated to science and his family, working from 8:30 until 6:00 or 6:30 and only very occasionally coming in on weekends,” she says. “Randy really showed by example that you can do both, but you have to be organized and have confidence in your decisions.”
Schekman says, “I do work hard and take on too many responsibilities, but I really thrive on keeping busy and managing to juggle things reasonably effectively... No doubt I am overextended and some things don't get as much attention as they deserve.”
Despite the demands of his packed life, Schekman takes time to make people smile. He spends hours planning comic ways to introduce speakers and can make fun of himself, says Salama. “Randy's wit … always teeters on the verge of inappropriateness and the joke is often on him.” For example, Salama recalls that when his son was in Indian Guides, a father-son program at the YMCA, Schekman named himself Flying Arrow—until a vasectomy, when he changed the moniker to Broken Arrow.
He periodically poses challenges that focus lab members on the next “big picture” issue. The prize? A gourmet restaurant meal on Schekman's dime. On one such occasion, the group dressed up and dined at Domaine Chandon, a winery in California's Napa Valley.
In discussing his favorite movie, It's a Wonderful Life, Schekman reveals part of what propels him toward work that supports the scientific society. “I start crying before the opening credits are finished,” he says. The film is “about loyalty and commitment and the public good. In this small way, in an out-of-the-way place, one person can have an impact on many lives.”
Berkeley qualifies as an out-of-the-way place only if you're from Manhattan, but Schekman is certainly having an impact on many lives there. “If things get a little tense, you can count on Randy to cut through the haze with some joke,” says Robert Tjian, an HHMI investigator also at Berkeley. Another Berkeley colleague, Michael Botchan, says this gift is especially handy during personnel discussions. “You can disarm people with a good joke or a comment that is at once funny and caustic. Randy has sharp elbows sometimes, and he can use his humor to his advantage. That's a great talent.”
Schekman acknowledges that “certain people... get under my skin. Usually this is because of dishonesty or arrogance... I must admit that I am not a patient person.”