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Because he aims to benefit the community rather than himself, “people trust him,” says Botchan. In 1997, Schekman was offered a “very big job.” Most faculty members use such situations to get raises or resources for their own research, but not Schekman. “He negotiated for more junior faculty positions in cell biology,” says Botchan. “That's atypical.”
Schekman's influence has rippled across the campus. He chairs the Chancellor's Advisory Council on Biology, which provides input on the direction of the life sciences, focusing particularly on hiring. When Schekman took this position, he angled for control of a pot of money that previously had been distributed by “scattering shots,” he says. “I saw that as a waste.” The funds now seed faculty-driven, cross-disciplinary projects.
The larger science community has benefited as well. In November 2006, Schekman took the reins of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where his mission, he says, is to improve quality. “When I became a grad student at Stanford, PNAS was the journal,” he says. “It was the place where you wanted to put all your best stuff. Up until the end of the 1970s, it was still the preeminent journal in the molecular biological sciences.”
Schekman is picking up where the journal's last editor-in-chief, the late Nicholas Cozzarelli, left off in his efforts to revive PNAS's standing. Schekman is continuing the quest to bolster its peer-review process and funnel more papers into a rigorous path toward publication. The journal's editorial board supports Schekman's philosophy, as does the membership at large. “Every Academy member would agree that the papers should be high quality,” says Alberts. But “when their paper gets questioned, they get upset. [Schekman and the editorial board must] get members used to the idea that their papers will undergo some scrutiny.”
In addition to raising the journal's caliber, Schekman is expanding the types of material it will run. For example, he's introduced long feature articles “that would otherwise go to Cell, Nature, and Science,” he says.
Given his track record, his success at PNAS is a good bet. Elizabeth Marincola, who was executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology when Schekman was its president, says he “threw himself into” improving that organization's journal, Molecular Biology of the Cell. “You would have thought his full-time job was being president of ASCB,” she says. “I can't imagine what it's cost his family [for him] to be so responsive.”
At home, Schekman's daughter, Lauren, has always felt his presence, even though he spent a lot of time on the road. “I do remember him traveling, but I mostly remember him coming home,” she says. When he was in town, he always appeared for dinner with the family: Lauren, wife Nancy, and their son Joel. And for years, Lauren says, he “schlepped me all over the [San Francisco] Bay area, multiple times a week, to choir rehearsals.”
Lauren recalls that she “didn't have a concept of where he fit into the scientific community” until she was in middle or high school. But she did know he was a scientist. In third grade, every student in her class had to come up with a question about the world. She wondered how electricity was made, for example, and one classmate asked about earthquakes. “At first the idea was that we'd get different people to come to answer the questions,” she says. But in one visit, “he explained them all. I remember feeling really proud.”
Father and daughter enjoy laughing together too, she says. “He's always the first person who I tell my new jokes to.” And laughter seems to form a thread that connects all aspects of Schekman's life. In October, comedian Jon Stewart derided Schekman and Rothman on his late-night TV show during an extended joke about a pool on the 2007 Nobel Prizes. Upon seeing the excerpt, Schekman wrote in an e-mail, “Who needs a Nobel prize? I've made it to The Daily Show.”
It's a wonderful life.