Eight Lessons from Harvey Lodish (MIT/Genzyme)
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Harvey Lodish is a professor at MIT, founding member of the Whitehead Institute, and helped found companies from Genzyme to Millennium Pharmaceuticals. His lab first cloned the erythropoietin (Epo) receptor and has done pioneering work in red blood cell development, cloning the TGF-β receptor with Robert Weinberg, long non-coding RNAs, and adipocytes. Lodish is one of the great examples of an inventor who gained the ability to build their own companies and not only do breakthrough research but retain some of its application value.
1.“Beginning in the late 1970s I have been heavily involved in the biotechnology industry, helping found successful companies including Genzyme (purchased by Sanofi) and Millennium (now part of Takeda). Most recently I helped start Rubius, a company developing engineered red blood cells expressing foreign proteins to treat a variety of human diseases.
Working with my own start-up companies, and serving on the scientific boards of many others, large and small, has given me many insights into the business world that takes advances from academic laboratories and converts them into real drugs, medical devices, and diagnostics. Equally importantly, these and other consultancies have enabled me to advise students and fellows about charting satisfying careers outside of academia—including patent law, research and administration in companies, and science policy.
These “extracurricular” activities have greatly enriched my life. They also enabled me to be much more aware of the complex issues affecting our graduate students and research fellows, especially those pertaining to life–career balances during the long period of training now required to attain a principal investigator position in a university, college, or academic hospital, or to assume a research or administrative position in a company.”
2. “Another aspect of my shifting focus is that I let my postdocs take their research with them. I have what I call the two-year rule: when postdocs leave my lab, we have a conversation where they tell me realistically what they are interested in doing for the next two years, and that is theirs. I never compete with my former postdocs. As a consequence, my lab changes focus over a 5–10 year period, allowing us to work on new ideas and enabling those who actually did the work to successfully start their own labs. I learned a long time ago that this training philosophy provides a lot of motivation. I’ve trained 150 postdocs and graduate students, many of whom are spectacular. There aren’t too many faculty who can boast of a Nobel Prize and four members of the National Academy of Sciences.”
3.“Most scientists don’t know what they’re worth.”
4.“I pride myself on my ability to collaborate successfully with a broad array of basic scientists, physician scientists, and clinicians. I am also very proud of the careers and accomplishments of the over 200 MD, PhD, and MD/PhD students and fellows I have trained over the past 50 years. Two received both the Nobel Prize and the Lasker Award and seven have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences and/or the National Academy of Medicine.”
5.“Many years ago I learned—in large measure from my professional wife and two professional daughters—that attracting and retaining top scientists to one’s research group requires a very family-friendly culture, both at the individual lab level and more broadly across the institutions.”
6. “Cloning the Epo receptor and our later cloning of the transforming growth factor b (TGF-b) receptors were risky and without any guarantee that they would work. Thus, it should not surprise anyone that I had no grants from NIH to support any of these cloning projects. In fact, during my lectures at the time on the cloning and characterization of the Epo receptor, I would show a slide entitled 'Ten reasons why NIH would not support the Lodish lab to clone the Epo receptor.' The slide included statements such as 'Lodish has no track record in the field,' 'He has never made radio-iodinated Epo and it is not clear he can do the binding assays,' 'The expression cloning technology is unproven,' and 'It is well known that the Epo receptor has multiple subunits and expression cloning cannot be used to clone just one of them.' Needless to say all of these points were nonsense, yet there was no way any grant review panel then or now would approve a grant application with so many uncertainties.
Fortunately, I was able to assemble some outside funds and also to convince the program directors of my NIH grants, in some cases after the fact, to divert a
few dollars from some of my hematology grants for these cloning projects. Of course, once we had these clones in hand, I was able to get large grants from
NIH to work on these. Almost immediately after publishing the TGF- receptors, for instance, I was awarded a large grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study TGF- receptor interactions and downstream signaling pathways.”
7.“Geography is very important.”
8. “Advancement of science depends on thoughtfully mentoring a rare group of scientists that are highly educated, creative, and motivated”