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Great Scientists are Great Communicators – Part 2

  Inspirational quotes from Japan Prize recipients

(Continues from the previous post)

Fighting scientists with perseverance and good dialogues

Let me continue with a few more notable remarks by the three 2012 Japan Prize-winning oncologists, before citing others.

Dr. Janet Rowley advised young investigators not to give up as saying: “Take risks. Do something different if it looks interesting.  I didn’t do anything noteworthy until I was 50.  Success often involved a great deal of luck.  Some people don’t like to hear that because it means there are things out of their control.  But that’s the way it is.”

Dr. Brian Druker, referring to several Japanese patients who came to meet him at the stage door after the Commemorative Lectures in Tokyo and thanked him with a bouquet of flowers, recalled how deeply he was moved when they expressed their appreciation in person for their recovery to good health thanks to the drug he developed. “That was one of the most thrilling moments for me.  Such a heart-warming encounter gives me the greatest satisfaction as a physician, deserving far more than any prestigious award.”  “My greatest reward is seeing patients who have benefited from my work.”

His scientific collaborator Dr. Nicholas Lydon told about the key to making a great accomplishment: “A team effort and perseverance matter most like many basic science discoveries.  Routinely keep up with a good communication to build good working relationships with your colleagues.  In any event of ups and downs in pursuing your research, your collaborators with whom you can share vital information and knowledge will be your friends in need under any circumstances.”

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Dr. Druker (above) & Dr. Lydon (below)
at the Japan Prize Award Presentation Ceremony April 25, 2012 in Tokyo.

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Prof. Grant Willson and Prof. Jean Fréchet, the 2013 Japan Prize winners in the “Materials and Production” field, were honored for their invention of chemically amplified resist materials now used for manufacturing nearly all of the high-density microprocessors and memory chips in the world. In 1979 Prof. Fréchet spent a sabbatical leave to join Prof. Willson’s resist research at the IBM San Jose Research Center, where he managed the research group. Later, the late Dr. Hiroshi Ito came to work under Prof. Willson as a post doctoral fellow.  Over the next decades the American, French and Japanese trio developed the new materials and process which IBM put into production.  Eventually this new technology became widely available under license, profoundly contributing to the development of information society nowadays.

Prof. Fréchet attributed their success to a team work with different backgrounds, saying in his acceptance speech at a press conference in Tokyo: “In order to solve technological problems it is often good to gather a team of people with different backgrounds — some who will be able to draw from their experience and intimate knowledge of a technology, and others with a different background and perhaps little experience, but who may be able to suggest new or unusual ideas.”

Noting that their new discovery faced stumbling blocks in putting it into practical use, Prof. Willson said it was most difficult to get consent from his rival researchers: “Rival engineers, who were doing similar work, stubbornly pushed back against our new technologies, since they also believed in their own ideas.  I push myself hard, more like a salesman or a politician, to get our findings across to as many my rival colleagues as possible.  Fortunately, I was able to find many friends who favored our process at the IBM’s production division.  Then I thought it important to believe what I was doing was right.”  Incidentally, in response to a question about his motivation to become a scientist, he was interested in finding something new from a kid and said, “The Popular Science magazine, which I used to read at a barbershop, was easy to understand fun of the science.  I’m still reading it.”

Prof. Fréchet, asked about his advice for young researchers, emphasized that first of all they must master the basic skills in “speaking” and “writing.” “Try the best to tackle new challenges one after another.  Don’t oppose different ideas, but listen carefully to them, and have a good discussion.”

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Prof. Fréchet at a press conference on January 30, 2013 in Tokyo

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Prof. Willson at the Commemorative Lectures on April 25, 2013 in Tokyo.
He paid a tribute to his fellow researcher, the late Dr. Ito, as saying,
“If he was alive, he would have shared this prize with us,”
at the Award Presentation Ceremony on the preceding day.

Scientific discovery:  Science version of a fairy tale

Prof. David Allis of the Rockefeller University in New York City was awarded the 2014 Japan Prize in the “Life Science” field for his pioneering discovery of epigenetics that chemical modifications of DNA-packaging histones (proteins) are fundamental regulators of individual gene expression.1) His findings elucidated links between epigenetic regulation factors and disease, which led to development of drugs and commercialization such as Vorinostat developed by Merck, a therapeutic drug for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.  Studies of several new drug candidates are also underway.

Looking back, Prof. Allis thinks his life can be called “a science version of a fairy tale,” as he made a long journey searching histone proteins and DNA through extremely difficult times before his elucidation gained prestigious recognition of the science community. He said he was once sort of a loser, since people around him hardly considered histone modification as the subject for research.  He faced a headwind for a long time.  He continued, “I was the lowest on the rank in the lab.  With a limited research fund, I was afraid I might lose my job.”  Such sense of crisis kept him having sleepless nights. The last bit of hope was almost lost and he even considered changing his job.  But with encouragement from his family as well as his determination not to give up, he continued to complete his research.  Fortune was not blind.  At long last, he achieved his breakthrough discovery.  “It was a close call, but there was a breakthrough at the toughest time.”

It was true that there were people around him who did not go along. It was also true that people around him helped him indeed, including his colleagues at the lab and co-researchers.  He likes to compare his work as a scientist to a fighter who never gives up.  “I have a quite strong will.  Once I set a goal, I will never give up.  I love my job as a researcher from bottom of my heart and I’m really enjoying it.  In other words, science gave me a good life.  Above all, I love people.  Whether they are students or authoritative researchers, I’m always excited about meeting them.  The most wonderful thing in scientific research is meeting with people.  It’s all about encountering people.  That is my asset as a scientist.  I’m a happy and lucky scientist.”

Prof. Allis enjoys working with young brilliant researchers. But for him they seem to be not good at communication.  “I think science can advance only when people exchange their ideas to their hearts’ content.  I hope they will care about this human aspect while engaging in their research.”  He is telling his students, “Meeting with people is important in science, and talk face to face with them. “In my laboratory, I feel tempted to yell at young people, who are near me but send me an email when they have something to tell me.  I think the most important thing in science is communication, to discuss in person, looking into each other’s eyes.”

Now he is engaged in deep study of childhood brain tumor that is deemed caused by DNA mutations. He decided to deal with the tragic cancer, as he became a grandfather.  The disease is very fatal and a great threat for children.  “A few years ago, it was reported that mutations were observed on certain sites of histones in roughly 80 to 90% of the patients.”  “How wonderful it would be if I could close my research life after finding out remedies to help the children suffering this disease.  I’m working with research organizations in the U.S. and Canada.  I’m sure that we’re positioned the best in the world.  I want to devote my remaining research life to clarify the cause and deliver results that can help treat the disease.”

He recalled his encounter with a tragic case of a six-year girl who was undergoing treatment of brain tumor. He never forgot her words, when she bid farewell to her mother early in 2014, saying, “Don’t worry about me.  You have your job to do.”  “I felt she left the words to me.  I’m confident I can clarify the cause of the miserable childhood disease,” he concluded his interview with tears in his eyes.

Upon returning to New York City after his official engagements during the 2014 Japan Week in Tokyo, he sent to this author a YouTube video link showing a local TV interview with the tragic child. In his e-mail dated May 1, 2014, he wrote, “Nick, I warn you that you will need some tissues for this, and it is hard for me to believe that her cells and tissue are in our lab.  I sincerely hope that we can make a difference, even a small one, with this disease.”  I could hardly watch it without tears.  The fighter, Prof. Allison, never stops.

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Dr. Allis at an interview with the Pharmaceutical News
on April 25, 2014 in Tokyo. He enthusiastically explains
the intricate mechanism of DNA and histone sequences
with his handcrafted mockup.
(Courtesy: the Pharmaceutical News/Tokyo)
Note 1):
Histones are DNA-packaging proteins that act as spools around which a cell’s DNA is coiled. Allis’s discovery that chemical “tags” bind to specific sections of histone proteins in order to activate or silence nearby genes has ignited the field of epigenetics, a relatively new area of study which explores the inheritance of physical changes that cannot be traced back to mutations in the DNA sequence.

Link to the Japan Prize website:http://www.japanprize.jp/en

Nick Nishida
GCI SunPub Co., Ltd.
Tokyo

 



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