Shelves and mentors

Palese laboratoryWhen I became Peter Palese’s first Ph.D. student in 1976, his laboratory at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City was in dire need of shelves. The laboratory benches (pictured) had no room for storing the many bottles of reagents that I was beginning to generate.

When I told Peter that his laboratory needed shelves, he told me to get them. I looked in the yellow pages (there was no internet at the time) and found a dealer in downtown Manhattan. When I told Peter, he responded, to my amazement, that he would drive me there to get them.

Within minutes we were in Peter’s car, driving far downtown to a small garage filled with shelf parts. The proprietor loaded some into Peter’s car and we returned to Mt. Sinai, where we carried the metal pieces up the elevator into the laboratory. There I bolted them together and made one set of shelving for the low lab bench, and a second set for a higher bench. The photo of Peter shows what the shelves looked like just a few years ago.Peter Palese

A few days ago Matt Evans, a professor in the same department as Peter, told me that the Palese lab was being renovated and that the shelves that I had built were being discarded. He knew that I had made the shelves because I talk about them when I give a seminar. Matt was kind enough to send photos of the shelves, and of the low lab bench on which they once rested. It’s amazing that the shelves lasted for 39 years!

There is a reason why I’m writing this story, and why I tell it whenever I give a seminar. I had selected Peter to be my Ph.D. mentor, which meant that I listened to him. When he told me to build the shelves, I built them. When I went to David Baltimore’s laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow, I listened to David. When either Peter or David asked me to do something, I did it. I selected them as mentors because they had more experience in virology than I had and I wanted to train with them. Therefore when they asked me to jump, I said, ‘how high’?

Palese shelvesI am not saying that mentors should have the ability to make their trainees do whatever they ask. Of course it is important to question; if you don’t understand why your mentor is asking you to do a specific experiment, by all means ask them! Being an effective trainee means listening and questioning. But remember that in the end they have more experience doing science than you have. If you don’t want to listen, why did you pick them in the first place?

I have been very lucky to have trained many fine virologists during my 33 years at Columbia University. Most have listened to my suggestions. The best have always asked questions, leading to many wonderful two-way interactions. But some chose to consistently ignore my suggestions for experiments or projects. I have seen similar conduct in other laboratories here and elsewhere. This behavior baffles me. To this day, if Peter or David asked me to do something, I would immediately comply. They will always be my mentors.

Palese shelvesUpdate: Gayathri, a Ph. D. student in the Palese lab, sent me a before and after photo of the shelves.

Richard Elliott, virologist

Vincent and Richard ElliottVirologist Richard Elliott passed away on 5 June 2015. I have known Richard since 1979 and I would like to provide some personal recollections of this outstanding virologist. A summary of his work can be found at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research science blog.

I first met Richard in 1979 when he joined Peter Palese’s laboratory at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. We overlapped for only about a year but it was enough to get to know him: he was a hard-working, enthusiastic virologists and a good friend. We shared many beers in New York City. At the end of 1979 I went off to David Baltimore’s laboratory where in 1981 I produced an infectious DNA clone of poliovirus. It proved very difficult to make infectious DNAs of negative strand RNA viruses, and it was Richard who was the first to accomplish this feat in 1996 for a virus with a segmented genome. This work was very important as it showed that infectious DNA clones were not limited to RNA viruses with monopartite genomes.

I remained in contact with Richard over the years but I did not see him in person until the 2010 meeting in Edinburgh of the Society for General Microbiology. The following year he joined me, Connor Bamford, Wendy Barclay, and Ron Fouchier for TWiV #177 recorded in Dublin. Schmallenberg virus had just emerged as a new pathogen of livestock, and he discussed his work on this virus.

I next saw Richard in a 2011 meeting of the Brazilian Society for Virology. When I arrived in Brazil it was quite hot, and I found Richard sitting by the pool, reviewing manuscripts in his bathing suit. I snapped a few photos of him and put them on Facebook. Later that evening he said his laboratory had asked why pornographic photos of him were on the internet – he was shirtless in my pictures (with Grant McFadden in the photo).

Richard Elliott and Grant McFadden

Richard visited New York in the summer of 2014 but we were unable to connect. Early this year Richard had agreed to join TWiV again for an episode from Glasgow. Sadly he became too ill to participate and died on the Friday before I traveled to Scotland. While there I briefly visited the Elliott lab at the University of Glasgow MRC-Centre for Virus Research, nearly a week after his death. I’m happy that I made the lab members smile:

Elliott lab

I can still remember Richard telling me how to spell his name: two ls, two ts. Richard was an excellent virologist, mentor, and friend. I will miss him.

Update: Corrected to reflect the fact that Richard produced the first infectious DNA of a segmented (-) strand RNA virus.

Virologist replaces Steve Jobs at Apple

arthur levinsonArthur D. Levinson, Ph.D., Chairman of Genentech, has replaced Steve Jobs as Chairman of the Board of Apple, Inc. During his scientific career, Levinson did research on different viruses, including adenovirus, retroviruses, and hepatitis B virus. His first virology paper came from his Ph.D. research with Arnold Levine, and is entitled “In vivo and in vitro phosphorylation of the adenovirus type 5 single strand-specific DNA-binding protein”. He moved to the University of California, San Francisco for postdoctoral work with Harold Varmus and Michael Bishop. There he published on the transforming gene of the retrovirus avian sarcoma virus. This PubMed search string will return Levinson’s publications on viruses, of which there are approximately 35. Levinson left virology to work at Genentech in 1980, but clearly could be called a bona fide virologist. Who would have known that Steve Jobs would be replaced by a virologist?

Thanks to Alice Telesnitsky for pointing out this story.