Sharon Swanger, Bassell Lab Specialist
Originally published February 2007.
Sharon: For those that don’t know you, can you tell us what you study?
Gary: In a nutshell, we are interested in the mechanism, regulation and function of mRNA transport and local protein synthesis in neurons.
S: You have been studying local protein synthesis in neurons since you were a postdoc, was this also the subject of your PhD thesis, and if so, aren’t you bored with it by now?
G: I’m completely bored Sharon, and I am leaving in three months. (Laughs) My thesis project in cell biology addressed basic questions about the interactions of polyribosomes, mRNA and RNA binding proteins with cytoskeletal filaments in fibroblasts. Towards the end of my thesis, there was a couple of exciting papers from other labs showing that mRNAs were localized to dendrites. As a cell biologist, I became interested in the neuron because it was a highly polarized cell and seemed like a great model to look at RNA transport. I did my postdoc with Ken Kosik in the Neurology department at Harvard. It was exhilarating to be around so many neuroscientists for the first time. They weren’t studying neurons because it was an attractive model system – they were interested in neurological diseases, functions of the nervous system, and aspects of synaptic plasticity. I realized that I had a whole education ahead of me, non-classically, to eventually become a neuroscientist. Everyone says you shouldn’t work on the same question throughout your career – that you should acquire breadth – but my interest to address issues about RNA localization and its function in neurons was a whole new field for me. I never departed from my thesis; I just took on new dimensions. I think its quite rewarding to be in a particular field for the long haul. I want to address broad issues in neuroscience, but also follow through on a question and dig deep into mechanisms.
S: When did you know you wanted a career in science?
G: I majored in chemistry in college and thought I would be a high school chemistry teacher, at one point I was interested in forensic science, and then I got involved in a research project in biochemistry and, through this experience, I considered a PhD in biomedical science. Not knowing what I wanted to do, I joined UMass Medical School’s biomedical sciences program. I did a rotation in physiology, then neurology, and finally in cell biology with Rob Singer. I was hooked on his research and him as a mentor. I really enjoyed my thesis, although it took much longer than expected.
S: How long did it take you?
G: Do I have to answer that?
G: Six and a half years. My wife took only 3 years and 9 months to get her PhD in chemistry, although, her thesis is probably a third the size. So when my kids see our theses on the shelf at home and point out to me that her thesis says 1989, and mine says 1992, I say, “Well, look at how much thicker my thesis is!”
S: You mentioned your family; can you tell us a bit more about them?
G: My son Brandon is 14 and my daughter Julia is 11. My son is a very good basketball player and he enjoys architecture. He is the quiet one, my daughter has to be center stage; she plays soccer and enjoys competitive Irish step dancing. She often studies until late at night with me in my office as I work. I think that as a scientist, having a balance between your career and your family is so important. Your family and your children keep you grounded.
S: So what do you do for fun outside of the lab?
G: I enjoy skiing with my wife and kids; they go with me every year to Winter Brain Research Conference. My son and I also go to NBA games. We used to go to watch the Knicks play, but now we get to sit real close at Hawks’ games and watch them “play” good teams.
S: You recently moved here from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Why the move?
G: To experience the second greatest accent in the US. (Laughs) Actually, I was truly very happy at Albert Einstein, but you never know if the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. Colleagues here at Emory informed me of a search going on in cell biology. This turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to move in new directions; it was invigorating. However, as a P.I. who doesn’t know how to do experiments anymore, this move would not have been possible if it weren’t for the two graduate students and four postdocs who were willing and able to move with me.
S: What was your most embarrassing moment, professionally, and what did you learn from it?
G: Towards the end of my postdoc, I had an interview at Rutgers University for an Asst. Professor position. After being up late working on my talk, I nervously got up early and drove to NJ from my home in Connecticut. When I got there I opened the trunk to get my carousel of slides, and they weren’t there. I looked in the back seat… not there either. I thought maybe I should call the chairman and say I have been in an accident or that I am sick, but I didn’t. I was beside myself sitting in the chairman’s office as I told him I didn’t have my slides. After a few minutes of contemplation, he says, “Okay…you will give a chalktalk. This is how we did it in the old days; you have chalk, you draw pictures and you talk about your data.” I was mortified at the start of my seminar. People snickered and laughed in the audience, and at that point I knew it was over and suddenly I was no longer nervous. I drew pictures of fibroblasts, RNA and microtubules, and talked about my data. I had nothing to lose; I knew I wasn’t going to get this job. But then people started asking questions, and I realized the audience was engaged.
S: So, did you get the job?
G: Three weeks later I was invited back for a formal seminar, and three weeks after that they offered me the job…I turned it down to move to Neuroscience at Einstein. It’s a real-life example that even the most miserable of moments in your career may not be as bad as you think; nothing is over until it’s over.
S: I would have called in sick. What about your professional highlights?
G: Of course I remember my first paper and my first grant that was funded, but I think my real professional highlights are the accomplishments of the people in my lab. Especially students and postdocs that struggled through the rollercoaster that science can be and showed such incredible perseverance. I remember their big experiments, their thesis defenses, and their graduations.
S: Do you have any pearls of wisdom for graduate students?
G: Three pieces of advice: 1. The rewards are sometimes few and far between in this profession, so remain persistent, have perseverance. If you have those qualities they will serve you well, if you don’t you need to acquire them. 2. Students tend to feel that grad school is a time to think big, to defy dogma, and in some ways it is. But I think it is as important to temper that energy by developing the skills of critical and detailed thought. This will not only help you design your experiments critically, but also deal with the practical aspects of your career development, i.e. obtain funding. 3. As graduate students you will go through this period of developing confidence to effectively harness and utilize your talents. Remember, you are often a much better scientist than you think you are.