Although most biomedical researchers labor in quiet obscurity, fame is no stranger to some members of the NIH intramural community. Two of the latest intramural scientists to catapult into the headlines are from NIEHS: Martin Rodbell, who shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Alfred Gilman of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas for work on G proteins, and postdoc P. Andrew Futreal, who, along with Senior Staff Fellow Roger Wiseman, was part of the group that isolated the long-sought breast cancer susceptibility gene, BRCA1. The NIH Catalyst recently conducted interviews with these two scientists to see how they're handling their sudden notoriety.
Q: How does it feel to become an overnight celebrity?
Rodbell: There's no sensation more bizarre than receiving a phone call at 6 a.m. from someone who says that you've been selected for the Nobel Prize. If my wife, daughter, two granddaughters, and son-in-law hadn't been there with me, I might have considered the whole thing the result of a dream (bad?). But I quickly realized that it was true because, according to my wife, I became strangely passive after friends from Sweden called to congratulate me. I believe this passivity came as a result of being told almost every year for more than a decade that I would get the Nobel Prize. It became so engrained in my mind that I decided, a few years ago, not to think about it. The thought was buried somewhere in my neuronal network, only to be aroused by a bell, something like the warning of an e-mail message emanating from the computer.
Calm and composed, I went through the first day as if it were just another day ... except that I had to meet the press. There they were, packed like sardines in a small auditorium with flashing lights and hordes of camera-bearing slaves ac-companying the reporters. Suddenly, I seemed important. Out of my mouth spewed forth a stream of words, many of which certainly had been stored for several years for that special moment when someone, somewhere, might listen to them. I couldn't stop. Reporters seemed to take down everything as if I were Moses handing them the Ten Commandments. They even applauded at the end, suggesting that they were just as crazy as I. We were all celebrities at that moment! We were all crazy, and in my mind, that is truly what it means to be a celebrity. Andy Warhol had it right -- every person should have 15 minutes as a celebrity. I just hope that the experience disappears just as quickly.
Futreal: It was actually rather surreal. We have been working hard for four years, and to finally get to the goal we were chasing was immediately exciting and accompanied by a sense of relief. As for the overnight celebrity aspect, that, too, was rather disconcerting in some aspects. It was nice for us to be recognized as being successful and, more importantly, as having been a key component in making a very important step in this crucial area.
Q: What impact do you expect this fame to have on your research, your career, and your relationships with colleagues?
Rodbell: This fame will certainly change my life. I'm already being treated as if all of the brilliance in the world is embodied in Marty Rodbell. Invitations to speak at Rotary Clubs have the highest priority. Since retirement, I have been giving lectures before senior citizen groups in the Research Triangle [Park, N.C.] area, and I am slated to talk before high school students in Chapel Hill. I have a small lab at NIEHS and intend to keep it within the limits of our meager budget and space. I doubt that this situation will change, given the budgetary and other problems at the Institute. I intend to use my new-found fame in a constructive manner by speaking out to any forum about my feelings on science policy and the role of science in society. As for my relationships with colleagues, they will remain as warm and interactive as ever. My personality will never change, certainly not because of the prize and all the hoopla ... Hopefully, that will blow over quickly, and I can return to practicing my piano, playing tennis, writing, and dreaming -- a wholesome, fruitful time for me.
Futreal: Obviously, I hope this will have the effect of providing the opportunity to pursue my own research ideas in a lead-independent fashion. The cloning of BRCA1 was just the first step. A more difficult task lies in determining function and biology for the gene and, ultimately, translating this knowledge into useful clinical information, either through BRCA1 itself or through knowledge of its partners and pathways. Careerwise, it has certainly made being able to pursue and obtain a desirable position very feasible. My relationship with colleagues has remained productive. I don't feel that those core relationships have really been altered in any significant way. Of course, the opportunities to interact with a more diverse group of investigators have increased, an aspect I really enjoy.
Q: What's been your experience in dealing with the press? Are media inquiries encroaching on your day-to-day work? How would you rate the news coverage of your research? What advice would you offer a colleague who's suddenly forced to face the press?
Rodbell: As for dealing with the press, I found them to be very interested in the type of science that deals with communication, which is my field. We quickly found a common language. However, I am amazed at the variety of interpretations they came up with. Accurate? No. Interesting? Yes. More importantly, they seem to accomplish their role in "transducing" my thoughts to the public. What more can one ask? Advice: talk to the press as if you were talking to your colleagues. One must act natural and talk freely about your thoughts. Don't be a pompous ass!
Futreal: On the whole, I really think that my interactions with the press have been very positive. However, there are always things that are taken out of context, and there are instances in which you wish you had been more articulate. The press interfered somewhat with day-to-day work, which was to be expected, given the media interest in this gene. It's been more a problem of getting large blocks of time to do experiments. Overall, I think the press has done a good job in putting the cloning of BRCA1 in its proper cautionary perspective, relative to what it means in both immediate and long-term time frames. As for advice on "meeting the press," that's a tough question, partly because my media experience is still a blur and because news coverage probably varies from case to case. Just make sure that your shirt is tucked into your shorts!
NIEHS administrators and researchers celebrate the isolation of the BRCA1 gene. Left to right, Kenneth Olden, Director of NIEHS; Carl Barrett, Acting Director of Environmental Carcinogenesis Program; Roger Wiseman, Senior Staff Fellow at Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis (LMC); and Andrew Futreal, postdoc at LMC.