When did you start first thinking about science?
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my older brother bought me an encyclopedia of science and technology, and I remember looking at pictures of a steam engine or a cross-section of a road and being quite amazed at how things were built and worked. About a year later, he bought me another book about the wildlife that you could observe if you sat silently and looked around from the forest floor. I don’t know if there was a single event that got me interested in science, but those two things I look back upon fondly.
What was your first science experiment?
My first real experiment was when I volunteered in a lab for a summer as an undergraduate. It involved looking at the effect of lithium ions on a presynaptic calcium channel that affected the release of a neurotransmitter onto a bit of small intestine of the guinea pig. I worked on it for two months, but the experiment wasn’t very useful, and we didn’t learn very much. But I did learn how to do dissections, and I learned how to keep tissue alive for long periods of time. And I also learned that doing experiments for a whole day, doing two dissections a day, was remarkably hard work. All of that was very informative, but the experiment itself wasn’t very good.
Who is your science hero?
I’ve always admired a couple of people: Alan Hodgkin, who was a British physiologist who did some pioneering work on the action potential, and Otto Loewi, who was a German pharmacologist and who was one of the people who discovered chemical synaptic transmission. They did some amazingly elegant experiments that have stood the test of time and were very insightful. And I’ve just finished reading a book by Venki Ramakrishnan, who worked on the ribosome. I don’t suspect he would like to be thought of as a “hero,” but I now would consider him up there as a person who I look up to, too.
Where are you happiest?
This is going to sound very sad, but I really like coming in to work on the weekend when there is nobody else around and just pottering around, spending a day in the lab, catching up on things and then going home at the end of the day and having a nice dinner with my wife Vahri. That’s a good day to me.
What has been your finest achievement?
I think the telescope of time will determine what my best achievement was. Check back with me in 10 years.
What is your defining characteristic?
I’m quite a critical person, sort of a Doubting Thomas. Increasingly, as I read papers, I don’t take the word of the person who’s written the paper. I read a paper and I try to think of alternative explanations. Whether that is a good quality or not, I don’t know.
What are the qualities of a great scientist?
Honesty has to be very high up there. Science is a complicated business, and people make mistakes. They follow blind alleys that lead nowhere. The only way out of that is honestyst. And since most things you try don’t work, perseverance is a very important quality. Honesty and perseverance.
What do you appreciate most in your colleagues?
I appreciate people who are willing to think and have a nuanced discussion and be open-minded about how to move things forward. I don’t appreciate cookie-cutter mentalities and formulaic responses. I value colleagues who are open-minded and willing to discuss things freely.
What is your motto?
When I ran a lab at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, there was a quote outside the lecture theater by (Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist) Max Perutz that said, “In science, truth always wins.” I don’t have my own motto, but I’m very keen on the one by Max Perutz.
What is your greatest virtue?
I would like to think that I am pretty fair with people in my lab, and that I give people a chance. If I see something interesting and a person has a little bit of a sparkle and a little twinkle in their eye, then I like to give that person a chance in the lab, even though he or she may not have the best grades or may not have the best research background. If I can see that there is a passion in them somewhere, then I like to give them a chance. I think it’s important to give people a break.
What is your greatest fault?
As I get older, I think I’m becoming more obsessive. I’ve started making lists of things that need to be done. I think my greatest fault is the mentality that there are always details that need to be checked off a list all of the time.
Whom do you most admire?
I admire many people. There is a postdoc in my lab who I admire very much. She is doing a very difficult job — she is raising a family, she has a husband who is six hours away as a medical student at UC San Francisco and she is balancing this while doing complex experiments in the lab — and I’ve never seen her without a smile on her face. I have another postdoc who is from Japan who is working in my lab but his wife is in Japan. We have people in the lab who are working under less-than-perfect circumstances but they carry on and they work really hard, and I admire them for that dedication. And I have colleagues, some of whom have struggled with funding but they’re very tenacious and they persevere and they carry on running their labs. There’s no shortage of people to admire here if one simply looks around.
If not a scientist, what would you be?
A farmer. I know a few farmers, and the farmers I know are physically and mentally very tough people. I don’t think I would have made a very good farmer, and I probably would have died of starvation pretty quickly, but I have this romantic notion that it would have been good to be a farmer.
What is your most treasured possession?
A friend gave me a sketched portrait of a dog I used to own. This dog — Otto, after Otto Loewi — was such a fantastic companion. He died about a year-and-a-half ago, and, so, I think this portrait of him is, right now, my most treasured possession.
What keeps you up at night?
I recently got a new dog. He is 11 weeks old, so he needs to go out and do his duties every few hours. And we have another Boxer we rescued about a year ago, and she wants to go for a long walk at 5:30 every morning. Between the two of them, they are what keep me up at night. Other than Tulsi and Abba, there’s really nothing that keeps me up; I can sleep like a baby.
To which superhero do you most relate?
I don’t really relate to any superheroes. I liked Mighty Mouse when I was a child.
What are you most compulsive about?
I like to feel when I leave work that I’ve done something useful during the day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something important — you can’t do something important every day — but it is nice to know that I’ve done something useful. So, I am a little bit compulsive and I don’t like to leave until I feel as though I’ve actually achieved something during the day.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I really enjoy running a lab and doing experiments. I really like being in an academic environment. At a very deep level, I believe it is a real privilege to do what we do, to be able to come to work, to be able to think freely, and, essentially, to work on whatever we want. That opportunity in itself is inspiring. And it is nice to see the people who come into the lab — the students, PhD students, postdocs — with their germinal ideas and to help them to develop them and then publish on them and go on to faculty jobs of their own.
What is the best moment in your day?
Having a hot shower in the morning. I would love to have a shower in the afternoon at work, too. Having a shower in the middle of the day is, I think, one of the greatest luxuries that you can squeeze into your day.
What has been your biggest “aha” moment?
In the last eight years, I’ve been very surprised at how astrocytes are increasingly shown to regulate neural circuits and behavior. Some of that work has come from my lab and some has come from other labs. It isn’t really an “aha” moment; it’s sort of a “hmmm” moment, a realization. I think that’s really quite interesting, and it is an idea that we’re trying to pursue.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I was told by an American colleague when I moved to the United States that in the U.S. the squeaky wheel always gets the oil. My greatest challenge, I think, has been trying to get the resources to do the work we want to do without being an opportunistic squeaky wheel. That is something that I’ve made a conscious effort not to do, and it’s been a challenge. But I think we’re doing okay.
How do you want to change the world?
In my opinion, racism is the world’s most accepted, and perhaps, in some circumstances, even the most rewarded social injustice of our time. It would be great if we could get rid of it. I’m not delusional; I realize this is beyond my skill set. But I think that spreading the message, being a voice against this social injustice, is important.
What is your definition of happiness?
I haven’t really thought about a definition of happiness. I guess, perhaps, I am too busy trying to find it and enjoy it, but I haven’t had time to reflect on what it actually is. Maybe one day I can say, “This is what defines happiness,” but at the moment I’m just happy to find it and enjoy it.
What is your idea of misery?
I like to go for a coffee on my way to work, and I hate it when there’s a long queue in the coffee line. And on the weekends, I like to go to my favorite sandwich place and get a sandwich for lunch, but they change the people who work at the deli counter so often that they can never make the perfect sandwich. Those are two things that I find, at a very superficial level, to be misery.
What music do you listen to while you work?
I’ve never listened to music at work. I’d love to wear noise-canceling headphones, but I’ve resisted the temptation just in case people find it rude. I had a very sophisticated PhD student in the lab from New York, and for three years she walked around with headphones on, and I just assumed she was listening to classical music. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask her what she was listening to, and she said she was listening to daytime TV. Different things float different people’s boats, I guess.