Virologist John Holland passed away on 11 October 2013. I asked former members of his laboratory for their thoughts on his career and what he meant to them.
For more than 35 years, John Holland was a major figure and leading contributor in the study of RNA viruses. His early pioneering work on poliovirus was the first demonstration that the block to poliovirus growth in non-primate cells was due to the absence of specific receptors on non-susceptible cells. This critical discovery has been a guiding beacon for many subsequent studies on virus-cell interactions. Holland was also a central figure in applying molecular biology approaches to the study of viruses. His work on picornavirus protein processing and replication was innovative and characterized by a “simple but elegant” experimental approach.
For the last 20 – 25 years of his scientific career, Holland focused his studies on vesicular stomatitis virus (an RNA-containing rhabdovirus) as a model system for viral persistence and for the study of evolution of viral genomic RNAs. His work on persistent infections lead to important discoveries about genome interactions between infecting viruses and the defective-interfering particles that they generate. Some very far-reaching conclusions about the nature of virus-virus and virus-cell interactions during viral infections have emerged from Holland’s research efforts. Perhaps his most influential findings resulted from experiments devoted to quantitation of the rates of mutation during the replication of viral genomic RNAs. These studies, many of which were carried out with his long-term collaborator Esteban Domingo, led to the now widely-accepted concept of virus quasispecies. Indeed, using novel, quantitative experimental approaches, Holland and his co-workers greatly advanced our understanding of the molecular mechanisms that have generated genetic diversity among RNA viruses and, ultimately, among living organisms in general.
As one indication of Holland’s significant contributions to our basic understanding of viruses, one need only look at the more than 150 original research papers and review articles that he published. The publications are in the most respected and prestigious scientific journals. Moreover, a number of these papers provided seminal biological tenets and have gone on to become classics in the field of molecular virology. Holland also trained a significant number of Ph.D. students, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduate researchers who now have academic positions in major universities and research institutions in the United States and Europe or positions in big pharma and biotechnology. Many of these individuals still carry out research in virology.
I spent six and a half years in John’s lab from 1987 to 1993. This period was a truly wonderful time in my life, in large part due to how John ran his lab and interacted with me and other lab members. John promoted a great sense of scientific freedom and actively encouraged creative thought. He also was tremendously supportive when the pathway forward was fraught with difficulties and challenges and I found his immense knowledge and insights to be very helpful in rapidly determining how to proceed. John was a supremely competent and confident scientist and yet he maintained a great sense of humility about his own highly significant contributions, in part I believe due to his interest and global understanding of the many other branches of science, which extended to quantum mechanics and “string theory”. On a personal and worldly level John was also tremendously supportive and understanding; his advice in these areas nearly always hit the mark. When I first arrived at UCSD John accompanied me while I was arranging to rent an apartment and buy a car. As a newcomer to the USA it was a great comfort to have the presence of this physically imposing, experienced and knowledgeable guy at my side while I made the deals. My admiration and respect for John continued to grow during my tenure at UCSD; I saw eye-to-eye with John in nearly all things. When I left the Lab I stayed in regular contact with John by E-mail and visited John and his wife Dottie from time to time when they moved to Taos, NM and then Mesquite, NV. John was a very special and influential person in my life. I feel hugely privileged to have known him as a mentor and a friend.
From my sabbatical stays with him, I remember a few anecdotes and I include also some thoughts.
A visitor comes into John’s lab at UCSD and sees a guy with dirty hands trying to fix an oil pump on the floor. Do you know where can I find Professor Holland? I am Professor Holland. What can I do for you?
When I was on sabbatical with him, I prepared a manuscript for J. Virol. on work done in Madrid. John liked it, reviewed it prior to submission and corrected a few English mistakes. I sent the manuscript and one of the referees comments stated: ”English must be improved”. John’s comment: “You see Esteban, this is how things work. This incompetent reviewer added this comment because he / she knows you are Spanish”.
Most remarkably, John worked on his bench until retirement. He would supply cells to all of us (students, postdocts, visiting professors) for us to do the experiments. He maintained continuous conversation with us on scientific issues (from the lab or elsewhere) while working on the bench. These conversations were a great inspiration but he would allow absolute freedom to do the experiments each of us wanted to do. He was an example of honesty, authenticity and vision to anticipate towards where virology was heading to. It is said that he was offered by Joshua Lederberg to head a new institute on emerging infections, but he declined in order to remain active in the lab (if true, this would be very much in line with John’s personality, but I have no confirmation of such offer; he never told me anything about it).
He was very critical of population geneticists who objected to quasispecies. He would often say things such as: “You see Esteban, these guys treat viruses as if they were frogs. Just ignore them. Data are data”.
His review published in Science in 1982 (vol. 215, pages 1577- 1585) was a great inspiration to me and the beginning of a permanent contact until he passed away. One of his students (I believe David Steinhauer) told me that the Q beta work that allowed a calculation of a mutation rate in Charles Weissmann’s laboratory (in which I participated) made John understand what was going on in the dynamics of DI [defective-interfering particle] generation and competition with standard VSV, and this is the reason why he honestly recognized the Q beta work so enthusiastically in the Science review.
When Bert sent the message a few weeks ago telling us that he had passed away I couldn’t stop thinking about him and my days in his lab at UCSD. He had a big influence on all of us that passed through his lab.
I came to his lab in May 1985, to do post-doctoral training after completing my Ph.D. at the University of Buenos Aires where I worked with Foot and Mouth Disease Virus. For all of us virologists in the late 70′s-early ‘80s, John Holland was a big name in the field, and to receive his letter welcoming me to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship in his lab was very exciting to me. But I did not know how different he (and his lab) was from what I imagined: He and everything in his lab was so relaxed and informal!
If I have to describe John, I would say that in addition to be very intelligent and creative, he was modest and extremely generous of his time and his lab resources. He strongly believed in being independent and a free thinker: he would not tell you what to do. I remember that when I arrived he said, “Here is the lab, take any open bench, talk to the people and think about what you would like to do and we could talk in a few weeks”. He always implied that you were able to do great work; he expressed confidence, and respect for the work we did and always listened with a very open mind. I believe that the sense of support that we experienced allowed us to grow. He was an excellent model for the ideal scientist.
It is no secret what an amazing a scientist John was, his scientific legacy is there for everybody to see. He was the smartest person I ever met, and knowledgeable to the point of ridiculous. We had a sort of running joke trying to come up with a question about anything, from history to quantum physics, that he did not have an answer for. Didn’t find it.
He was an even better person. Many of us think of John as a mix of mentor, friend and father (I’m stealing David Clark’s words). My most vivid memories are usually related to John worrying about the possibility of somebody being unhappy, or finding excuses for somebody’s human weaknesses.
There was a janitor, D., who would tell everybody the story of his ongoing divorce and how his wife wanted to take his two kids away from him. One day he disappeared, which was normal due to high turnout for his job. Months later John comes to the lab and says “Have you heard about D.? He is in jail. The police came to his home and it was full of computers and other stuff stolen from the University. The divorce drove him crazy!”
According to John, the devil himself is a really nice guy.
The worst of my time with him, hands down, was when I had to leave. However, on the positive side, that gave me a good enough excuse to finally give him a hug (he was very shy). He was, is, and will always be my hero. He made me a better person and is helping me even after his death. Not because I believe in any beyond, but because of his lessons in humanity.
John was a terrific scientist and mentor. He taught us by example: he worked in the lab every day with joy, focus, and a sense of purpose. We had our scientific discussions with him at his lab bench or ours – not in his office. John also set an example of balancing science and other things in life; his outside pursuits included oil painting, gliding, hiking, and baking delicious French bread. For me his mentorship has been very important in the last couple years when I have been a professor with more administrative responsibilities – he was always willing to provide wise advice. John and I had an active email correspondence, and the week before he passed away we corresponded about some recent defective interfering particle research. Likewise he corresponded with many former Holland lab members, making each of us feel like we had a special bond with him and with each other.
I’m not sure who taped it up there, but during my time in John Holland’s lab there was a rather inconspicuous elementary school-like drawing of a palm tree with the caption “Fantasy Island” that hung as a permanent fixture above the sink at the center of the lab. In thinking back, it seems like an appropriate symbol for my memories of a special time of exciting science and great collegiality in John’s lab.
When I approached John in my first year of graduate school to ask if I could do my final rotation in his lab, he agreed, and pointed to the collection of lab reprints that were stacked in files on one of the office walls; “Grab five or six papers from there, go home, or go to the beach or something, and come back in a week and tell me what you want to do”. This was different from my previous rotations, and a week later I came back with a few rough ideas in my head, but no definitive project outlined. I was a bit apprehensive, but I had thoroughly digested the recent lab publications, and had a pretty good idea of the general themes and directions of the group. After a few minutes of discussion alongside John’s bench (not in his office), we informally outlined a set of experiments and goals that probably didn’t deviate much from what he would have “given” me as a rotation project right from the start – if John was a “normal” PI. The beauty of the process was that he made me think that I had come up with the idea for this project on my own! This encapsulates the secret to John Holland’s style of mentorship; it was a fluid blend of independent thought on our part, and guidance on his part that was sometimes firm, but more often so subtle that it bordered on the undetectable. During my graduate career John never had a single formal lab meeting, and he never micromanaged. In fact, by today’s admin-infested, documentation-oriented standards, John didn’t manage us at all. However, he fostered an environment of personal responsibility, collegiality, and support, that would have made formal lab meetings redundant. Maybe it worked because John was in the lab every day, but we all knew the ins-and-outs of other projects, and when anyone obtained a new result or developed a gel, we would congregate around the lightbox and offer feedback and suggestions on the spot. Soon after joining the lab, I learned that there should never be any embarrassment or shame in an “unexpected result” or “ugly gel”, because we all got them from time-to-time and you couldn’t get away with trying to hide it! Though such results usually led to a standard series of bad jokes and gentle ribbing, this was inevitably followed by the kind of support and constructive commentary that would have distinguished any formal lab meeting. Though unconventional, those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of John’s group know that the supportive environment, and the freedom to design experiments and pursue projects, allowed us to grow as independent thinkers and scientists, and offered the best training we could hope for.
The test of time reveals that everyone I overlapped with in John’s lab actually had career ambitions as a scientist, and we all now hold respectable jobs in academia and industry. However, at the time this was probably less apparent, and the lab often resembled a clubhouse for overgrown kids, with a generous degree of joking around, and people vacating periodically during the day for softball games and other outdoor pursuits in the inviting San Diego climate. True to his nature, John left us to our own devices; somehow having faith that we were also self-motivated, determined scientists who would let the experiments dictate our schedules, and in fact the lab routinely became a beehive of activity well into the evening and was always well populated over the weekends. Late afternoons were the highlight of each day as John was always in the lab, either passaging his viruses in the glass milk bottles that we used for cell culture, or synthesizing oligos for sequencing studies. Though he was inherently shy, John was always in his element during this time, when he was one of the gang participating in the banter that drifted aimlessly from science, to subjects such as politics and sports, and back again – jokes and cackles of laughter punctuating the proceedings all the way. However, in retrospect, my favorite time for interacting with John came during relatively quiet times on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when he would come in to the lab to passage his lines, and sometimes it was just the two of us. It was then that John would often discuss his experiences in science and in life, informally and interspersed with stories and anecdotes. These occasions constituted the best mentoring experiences I ever received, and bonded a friendship that lasted until his passing. The amazing thing is that John somehow seems to have created this kind of personal time for each of us that were privileged enough to have worked with him, and we have all led richer, more meaningful lives because of it.
Scott Vande Pol
John’s passing touched me, and has prompted some thoughts I am happy to share with you. HIs output as a scientist was pretty impressive (defining viral receptors, viral protein translation, the mechanism of viral persistence, the nature of RNA virus populations and evolution), but I think his life as a scientific mentor was certainly as great. As I noted to Bert, by modern theories of proper scientific mentorship (weekly documented meetings with progress reports and specific aims achieved on schedule) John was a terrible mentor because he did none of those things. But what a great mentor he was! He treated his students as his colleagues and equals. This man, who was smarter than me, more experienced, and more knowledgable, wanted to know MY opinion, because he was genuinely interested in what I thought. And then we would talk. This created a space into which we all had to grow, and it was a completely natural outcome of his humility. Our formal lab meetings were nonexistent, but in some ways continuous, because he was almost always in the lab. That does not mean it was all sweetness, because John had real scientific standards and would let you know when you did not meet them (but without crushing your spirit). I remember when Mark Spector from Racker’s lab came to give a seminar at UCSD, and as we were walking back I asked John what he thought about the seminar and he replied that the seminar was entirely untrue (actually, stronger words to that effect). He did not spare fools, and, he had a real temper that on rare occasions could be pretty ghastly. You did not want to be on the receiving end of that. But mostly he laughed a lot, and his lab was a place where games, tricks, and joy prevailed. I remember that a sure-fire trick was to put a message on the blackboard that some super-prominent scientist has called him leaving a return number, which was actually “dial-a-prayer” in Seattle or New York. John would always fall for this, but then laugh and laugh and laugh every time. It was a happy place.
In John’s lab we did not work for John, we worked for ourselves with John. When I came to the lab, he said: ”You can do anything you want for your thesis as long as it involves RNA viruses.” That was it. It was up to me to decide what I wanted to do, even for a rotation project. So a student’s project in John’s lab belonged entirely to the student and John never told me what to do. Some students wallowed, hell, I wallowed months away too. But it developed in his students the ability to make things happen, because John was not going to do it for you. Really, a BIT of structure might have helped, but that was not John’s way. If you wanted advice about a specific idea, he was always there to give it, but your fate was entirely in your own hands. In retrospect, it seems to have worked well, although in today’s pressured environment few mentors seem to take that approach.
Without trying overtly, John attracted students who opened themselves to him, and part of him then seeped in. We cannot help being inspired by this man because we were changed by him. I bet you are going to hear comments such as these a lot.
John was the consummate academic scientist, and being a student or postdoc in his lab was a unique experience. Even in the midst of teaching major introductory biology classes at UCSD, he worked in the lab every day and was always available for informal discussions at his bench or at the chalk board. During the later stages of his career, John maintained a small-to-medium sized research group so that he could continue to interact personally with his mentees every day. He also was also devoted to providing undergraduates with the opportunity to experience a basic research environment. In the era of disposable plasticware and reagent kits, he continued to use glass pipettes and cell culture bottles so that students could be employed in his lab and get a taste of research. The best ones progressed to experimental work and many of his most talented undergraduates went on to graduate, medical or veterinary school. Unlike many senior faculty, John always found time to meet with undergraduates to explain difficult concepts from biology classes or to provide career advice. Throughout his career, he influenced hundreds of students through his caring teaching and mentoring.
Photo credit: Kathy Spindler