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YOU’VE BEEN AN HHMI INVESTIGATOR FOR 36 YEARS. HOW HAS HHMI SUPPORT AFFECTED YOUR WORK?
Challenging things take time. That’s the definition of challenging. One of the nice things about being a Hughes investigator is it allows you to take a bigger risk because you don’t have to have an immediate result.
At the time that I was entering the field, nobody was trying to study receptors directly. My vision was, boy this could be big. If there was really a way to get at these mythical receptors, it could be something I could build a whole career on. I realized that if we were going to move forward we would need to develop all kinds of techniques to study receptors—we needed to label them, bind things to them, purify them.
In this depiction, the G-protein-coupled receptor (blue) sits within the lipid bilayer of the cell membrane (green) to respond to a hormone (yellow). The red, orange, and copper ribbons are three subunits of the G protein.
Image: Wayne Decatur
The risk, in retrospect, was huge. I wasn’t even 30 years old, but I had the chutzpah of youth. It seemed very challenging, but I didn’t perceive the risk. It never occurred to me that the whole thing could fail, even though I went down a number of blind alleys. Hughes support allowed me to keep going.
YOU CLEARLY DID A GOOD JOB MENTORING BRIAN KOBILKA. WHAT, TO YOU, MAKES A GOOD MENTOR IN SCIENCE?
There’s no single right way to mentor. I love interacting with my trainees, getting to know them, and assessing what makes them tick. What I do is a lot like coaching—you play to people’s strengths. Let’s say I’ve got a guy who’s five-foot-seven and a terrific shooter. I don’t make him a center. And I don’t make my seven-foot-tall player a point guard. My goal for every trainee—and I’ve had more than 200 of them—is the same. I want them to experience what it’s like to work at their potential, to be running as fast as they can run. For some people, like Kobilka, that’s a four-minute mile. For others it’s an 11-minute mile.
If my career was limited to just the experimental results I’ve reached with my own hands, nobody would’ve heard of me. Going from an idea to the right experiment is not a trivial thing. It requires great players and good coaching.