How My Path Changed Direction
I was always sure that I would end up as a physician-it was my goal. In high school, I took all the science classes I could cram into my schedule.
Even my extracurricular activities were geared toward medicine-I was in an Explorer Scout Medical Post that met with different types of doctors each month and manned the first aid tent at all the scout jamborees.
Following high school, I majored in psychology and premed at the University of Pennsylvania, where I matriculated in 1969. As a psychology major, I shunned the "touchy-feely" psych courses such as social psychology, and felt more at home in a very strong physiological psychology department. The best professor I had there, Dr. Philip Teitelbaum, had done some of the original work demonstrating that specific parts of the brain controlled specific bodily functions. He showed that stimulating a particular area of a rat's brain caused that rat to get extremely fat and insatiably hungry. Or, he could cut out that same part of the brain and the rat would get very thin, seemingly lacking any appetite. Dr. Teitelbaum had lots of theories that he was pursuing.
I had a theory of my own, which led to my first scientific research project having something to do with plying college freshmen with alcohol mixed with Hawaiian Punch and checking their handwriting. I have no idea how this research got past the Human Subjects Committee (the freshmen were under the legal drinking age) and a member of the committee even gave me a gallon of the ethanol from his lab to get me started. That was the birth of my scientific career. This research in physiological psychology solidified my major in this subject and my conviction that I would pursue a research career.
Upon graduation, I enrolled in Cornell University's Graduate School of Medical Sciences, entering a Ph.D. program in neurobiology and behavior. This school was part of Cornell University Medical College in New York City. Early on, I sought out a Ph.D. advisor within my interest in developmental neuroscience. Dr. Ira B. Black had never had a graduate student before and was just finishing up his residency in neurology. But he came with a good pedigree. Following the receipt of his M.D. at Harvard Medical School and an internship, he took time to pursue research at the NIH with Julius Axelrod, a Nobel Laureate for his work in catecholamine research. Ira had also traveled to Cambridge, England, to spend a year in the lab of Leslie Iversen, another Axelrod disciple.
I spent nearly 4 years in Ira's lab, studying the effect of target organs on sympathetic neuron development, that is, how the things those nerves grow to and attach to affect the development of those nerves reaching them. Although I was Ira's first Ph.D. student, he had clear thoughts on what he wanted to teach me and how I could progress through a strong research regimen. In succession, he taught me to think like a scientist (e.g., never make statements that were not properly supported by fact or empirical knowledge), how to design experiments properly, how to write well (he was a merciless editor), how to write grants (not only did I help with preparation of lab grant proposals, I won an individual NIH pre-doctoral fellowship), and how to make presentations.
There is some question about the value of the Ph.D., especially for people who choose not to use it. To me, the value I feel for myself, and see in other Ph.D.s who work with me, is the ability to have taken a large body of work to completion. This includes becoming the world's expert in one specific field and creating new understanding or knowledge in that field. People who have gone through that exercise have the ability to focus on projects, to design and implement the solution, and they are able to write and speak about it.
Thanks to Ira's focus, I was the first Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences Ph.D. student to make it through in only 4 years. A postdoctoral position was lined up in the laboratory of Dr. Perry Molinoff at the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver. Perry was another Axelrod disciple. My grant writing skills allowed me to line up both NSF and NIH postdoctoral fellowships. Although the mentoring was minimal, Molinoff did pull together some other excellent post-docs, and we worked on adrenergic receptor pharmacology and the regulation of these receptors.
After two-and-one-half years in the Molinoff Lab, I left for another post-doc/junior faculty position at the Department of Pharmacology at the University of California at San Diego, working with Dr. Paul Insel. At this lab, I picked up skills in cell biology and again used my grant writing skills to work on lab grant proposals and get fellowships, including a California Heart Association fellowship. I stayed in San Diego for 14 months.
There are two things I want to point out about the postdoctoral years. First of all, I firmly believe that most scientists experience tremendous personal growth and do their best and most creative work during their post-doctoral years. Their future scientific careers are based around what they did during their post-doc, much more than what they did for their Ph.D. research. They are in much more of a doing rather than a learning mode and they can be much more productive. They work between 60 and 80 hours a week, churning out research and papers at a strong pace.
These are tough, but productive and important years. They are important for the development of a career, either in science or in other career alternatives that one may choose. Critical thinking, writing, and presentation skills are honed during these years. We also learn that we can work hard, over long hours, and survive. The post-doc, like a medical residency, is an important learning experience.