Cowboy Chemistry

Loren Looger and Scott Sternson became collaborators, and fast friends, after coming to Janelia Farm as group leaders in 2006. By Looger’s account, their partnership might be science’s version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

They’d never heard of each other before their side-by-side job interviews at Janelia. Sternson was a synthetic chemist turned neurobiologist working in New York City. In graduate school under HHMI investigator Stuart Schreiber, he learned how to design molecules to tweak biological processes. Sternson saw potential in the approach as a way to figure out how neurons control hunger.

As a plant scientist, California-based Looger was admittedly clueless about neurobiology. “I’d heard the word ‘neuron.’ I knew it was important, but what a neuron was, or how it might work—I displayed breathtaking ignorance.”

When Looger spoke in his job seminar about designing artificial protein biosensors, Sternson was in the audience, having already presented his ideas on manipulating brain circuits to learn how the hypothalamus influences motivation. He recognized that Looger had the perfect protein-engineering chops that, when meshed with his own chemistry savvy, could get his project moving. “I came up to Loren afterward and said ‘we really need to work together on this, regardless of how things go with the jobs.’”

Looger jumped at the proposition, despite their divergent interests. “I couldn’t give a damn about how the hypothalamus influences motivation,” he explains. “Sure, it’s fascinating, but I also think solar flares are fascinating. I work on what other people find interesting.”

Janelia Farm executive director Gerald Rubin also liked the idea. “Two weeks later,” Looger recounts, “Gerry called and asked, ‘Do you want a job? We hated the project you talked about, but if you’d like to work on other things, then come on down.’” Sternson also got the nod, and the two didn’t wait to move to Virginia to get to business. They began modeling ion channels in Looger’s San Francisco apartment.

Their incongruent styles still complement perfectly, Looger says. “Scott plans out the next 10 steps in his experiments. I just step in, often with no idea what I’m getting into. I just try to disinhibit people about trying things. My ignorance about a number of fields actually helps—I don’t know that these things are impossible.” Janelia Farm embraces that spirit, Looger says. “At the beginning of Janelia, everything just seemed so limitless and so new and so Wild West. That’s still the case.”

-- Paul Muhlrad