Dr. Howard Nash

Uploaded by NIHOD on 02.09.2010

HOWARD NASH: When this whole business was
first broached, you know, and I stopped thinking about it as a
public embarrassment but more as a chance to reconnect with old
friends and colleagues, I thought it was great.
Until one of the organizers, the only one that put me down in her
talk, indicated that what I should really do at the end was
give a precise and pristine summary of critical events in my
career and how it all hung together and encapsulate
everything in a few pithy words. I only began to enjoy this day
when I realized I didn’t actually have to do that.
But I, but I could share with you a few things that I think of
as kind of milestones in my career, and illustrate sort of
what I think of either as principles or landmark events,
not in, not so much in terms of science, but in terms of the way
I developed as a scientist.
And so, this begins long before I was a scientist. When I was a
kid I loved mysteries of various kinds. Listened to the radio to
programs that always had a puzzle and there was a solution.
And that’s something that I, I sort of bonded to but didn’t
realize how to activate until I was a senior in college. And
still, just sort of bumbling about, just taking exams and
doing well because it was easy for me to accumulate material.
Until, finally as a senior I took an advanced course with one
of Tufts University’s very few genuine researchers, Kenneth
Roeder, who taught a course in advanced physiology. And it
was, suddenly, at that moment that I realized that there were
questions out there about biology for which the answers
were not known and for which mechanisms were not understood,
and that that was a career that offered me a chance of
addressing mysteries for the rest of my life in this kind of,
of magical world.
And so, to the late Doctor Roeder, I really, owe a
tremendous amount of gratitude because it was the first step
that steered me sort of away from just following what
everybody else was doing and go off to medical school. Although
I did that, I did it now with a fresh idea that what I really
wanted to do was train myself for a career in research...
And I did that. Went to medical school. Emphasized research.
Got a PhD. Went back and realized
that medicine was really not for me. And set out for a career in
research. And had a wonderful time at the beginning except
that I also learned that research life was incredibly
repetitious. And, and I, I struggled with that. And was
complaining to a fellow post doc, I think, at the time about
this, and he had the wisdom to point out that this was a job
like any job. And, and I think, as Don Court
has written in the little book of mementos, I was always a
sports fan, and so it became clear that this job, doing
science, was like any job. And even if I was a ball player I’d
have to go to bat, you know, thousands and thousands of time,
each of them was a small assay, and who was I to complain about
doing yet one more when Henry Aaron had only done 12,000? So
I accepted the notion that this was not only going to be great
fun, but was also going to be a job and one that one had to
stick with. And the other... direction that I see as I look
back at my career that I learned early on also came from another
sports figure and that's the notion that each of those jobs
had to be done with a lot of focus.
And there the, the great hero was Cal Ripkin, the great
Baltimore Oriole... who despite the fact that he was superb at
many things, was often seen before games working on stuff
that he felt were things he didn't do very well. And that
insight has stood me well all these years and in fact, in many
ways the rubber tubing that Kiyoshi gave me was part of
that, of working on things that I didn't well, didn't do well.
When I was a kid and would take all sorts of aptitude tests, the
one part that I always did poorly on, was in fact sort of
spatial recognition where they showed you a bunch of blocks and
you could not see the full pattern, that you had deduce
what as behind the wall and so on.
That's something that didn't come naturally to me. And yet
in the middle of my career, I found myself faced with problems
in topology and I invented as many toys and tools as I can to
work on what I didn't do very well and it sort of helped me
over the rough spots. So I, I started this career with a sense
of yes I wanted to work hard and I wanted to be very focused, but
I, it was really one of the early experiences that also gave
me the mantra of what it was I wanted to do and actually Dan
Campbell's talk today just re-emphasized that. Many of you
don't know that when I came to the NIH, it was not to work on
Phage Lambda, I didn’t even know about Phage Lambda at the time.
It was to work on quantum chemistry and to use theoretical
physical chemistry to calculate properties of biological
molecules. This was a result of my realization that not only was
I not going to be well-suited for medicine, I wasn't really
going to be very well-suited for experimental physiology because
I had lousy hands and I couldn't build amplifiers from scratch.
And so I needed to do something else and I thought, ah, I will
solve biological problems with pure theory. And so I ended up
going to a physical chemistry lab and there they did very
advanced quantum mechanical calculations on biological
molecules and this is back in the early days when this had to
be done by computer of course, but it was with punch cards and,
and hand. I would stand there for hours, hand feeding punch
cards in and it meant writing in a Fortran language.
And so early on, long before laptops and other things
became popular in the lab, I was doing a lot of, of computer
work. And it was in fact this, I think this training really
became the mantra of my career because most Fortran programs
were comprised of, of little logical blocks and the most
critical one was the if-then command, that is, if you make a
hypothesis, and, and the answer comes out one way, you do
something number one. And if it comes out a different way, you
do the else block. And early on, this clarified for me why it
was that I was so confused in graduate school because I didn't
really have a real working sense of the distinction between
gathering data and sort of asking questions.
And pulling away from, from experimental work and doing
purely computational work, finally clarified that for me
and it became as I said, sort of the, the tool that I had for the
rest of my career of thinking back to well maybe this is just
like a computer program, we're going to ask if, if we think
this is true, what then, just exactly the, the way Dan said.
So he must have picked that up quite presciently from me.
So... the other aspects that I found in building my career was
also learning how to balance the psychological needs... of this
business. This is a, I'm sure you all know, that science is a
tough business and even if you are committed to work hard and
even if you sort of have some greater view of hypothesis,
still a lot of bad stuff happens.
And I turned out to be the kind of person for whom the second
half of that phrase usually overemphasizes more then the
first half. So those of you who don't know, this is a line out
of, out of a musical called The Producers, it was sung often to
a, a Braham's Hungarian dance, but it epitomized my view of
things which was that one plans, one expects most of the time
that there'll be failures, partly because you're taking big
steps, partly because you don't know where you're going. But
it's important then if you're going to expect failure, to have
that failure teach you something.
And I realized only many years later that in fact this was
something that the psychologists actually sort of had identified
as one way that certain kinds of people deal with anxiety. They
pointed out that most Americans are, are basically Norman
Vincent Peale optimists, they, they are able to move forward
because they're bright, positive people who think that everything
is going to work. Those of us who aren't gifted in that way,
have learned to be defensive pessimists, that is expecting
that's going to it rain and therefore carry an umbrella.
That way you're, you're sort of covered.
And a lot of the way, if you look at my career, the way I see
that I've constructed things was, suspecting that something
wouldn't work but hoping that I would have included enough
controls or enough richness, to learn something even from those
failures. And so I have certainly benefited from this
kind of, of defensive pessimism where you can be a pessimist, as
long as it doesn't paralyze you and as long as you can activate
something that, that helps you deal with the possibility. And
so it seems to me as I look back, those are the tools that
I, I brought to this game and the rest, it seems to me, sort
of falls out naturally but also expresses something that's very
personal. And for me, that also symbolizes
the way I, I felt. I'm somebody who needs to do something
different at, at reasonable intervals. And if you look at
my career it has in fact shifted from quantum chemistry to Phage
Lambda biochemistry, from Phage Lambda biochemistry to yeast
cell biology and genetics and the evaluation of, of an enzyme
that didn't get discussed today but is still very close to my
heart, the TDP enzyme, also not a very sexy name, Ulrike, I'm
sorry. But the idea of, of being able to gratify my need...
to move on from a problem and to try something completely
different, not something slightly different, with a
different wrinkle, but just to sort of break new ground, was
for me, psychologically important.
And it's one thing that I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to
the NIH and to the, specifically to the NIMH, for, for having a
structure that has made it possible for me to re-invent
myself several times in my career and therefore keep alive
the spark of enthusiasm and mystery and a learning curve
that, that keeps me going everyday. So... without,
without that possibility, I, I'm sure one wouldn't be numbering
the, my length of time in the organization in, in scores of
years. So those are the, basically the things that have
got me to where I am today. And it's only been in the last
few years. I'm sure most of you know that I've been
struggling with a significant illness during that time, that
I've done some sort of introspection and tried to
look at my career and, and learn something from it. Some of what
I've told you today has some of that, but perhaps the most
important lesson that I've learned is that it's really,
that I really had misconstrued what would, what has given me
satisfaction. I'd always imagined as I was doing it that
it was the scientific progress that would give me the most
satisfaction, that it was the publications, if you will, that
I would be able to look back and say, ah yes, those were the good
days, that was a great job. But in fact, as I look back,
it's not so much the papers, it's the people that, that I
find having most satisfied in me, why this gathering today has
been so rewarding and, and so positive for me as I've come to
realize that although I always thought of myself as a loner and
not very people-centric, the fact is, it's, it's the people
that I've influenced and can see some of that transition that has
tremendously... made me feel this has been a worthwhile
exercise to watch someone like Dan Campbell who came in as a
fresh college boy, to come back as now one of the leading lights
in the field, I think is just extraordinary.
This was a picture more or less taken because
it's the first I could find but it also epitomizes
that here's Debasmita Alone, a recent fellow who I'm
just delighted, unfortunately who couldn't be here because of
visa issues, but who I'm delighted to find, landed a job
in India and is now in the first stages of her career. And when
she does get her visa, she will come and spend a few weeks in
the lab to try to generate some data to get her first grant
support for her project. And Jason Rodriguez who is here
today, a fairly recent post-bac who I remember so vividly coming
back a couple of years after he left the lab, to talk about his
graduate school student project. And again, the wonderful sense
of gee, here's a guy who came in basically not knowing anything
about science and after a year in my lab and then a couple in
graduate school, he's come back as a really mature, fully, not
fully formed, but at least a, a well-developed person. So it,
this story... scientists. This story could repeat, be repeated
dozens of times. This was the only picture that I, I could
find, but we could go over it again and again. And then the
final thing that I want to say, on my last slide, is something
that I think I've been aware of for a long time and that has to
do with the difference between entitlement and gratitude.
As my career started to develop and I had some success, the
people of my parents generation, my parents of course would
always boast about how I was doing this and how I was doing
that. And they would hand out reprints of my papers at the
poolside and so on. And, and the answer from their generation
was always, well of course he should do this, he deserves it,
he's entitled to it. And somehow that never resonated
with me. I never felt that I deserved the support that I had,
either from the Institute or from the people who've worked
with me or from my colleagues. I've always felt that this was,
that each of these was a, was a great gift. And so I want to
end with a sentiment... best expressed by my eight year old
grandson, Theo Halligan which is basically a note to tell all of
you, everyone in this room because you all encompass all
the pieces that I'm grateful for, thank you very much.