Sunday, June 10, 2007

Joel's Science Hero #2

Today's science hero is Robert Tjian (pronounced Tee-Jin). Dr. Tjian is an investigator of Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of California Berkeley and co-founder of Tularik inc. (recently aquired by Amgen). I should stress now that, although I greatly admire what Dr. Tjian has accomplished during the span of his career, I do not see him as a role model per se. To be honest, the man scares the hell out of me. A former PhD student in his lab told me (and I am paraphrasing) that "Bob just can't see eye to eye with people who aren't as enthusiastic about science as him, and he can't work with these people. But, if you do see eye to eye with Bob, he'll make sure that nothing stands in your way, and he makes sure that you have everything availble to do anything you need to do." To give an example of what seeing eye to eye with Tjian involves, a local PI told me that he knew a man who post-doc'd with Dr. Tjian. According to this PI, the post-doc in question received a phone call one morning at about 3 AM. The caller was Dr. Tjian, and he said (once again, I am paraphrasing): "I just loaded your gel, you'd better be here to take a picture before it runs off".
I don't say these things to in any way diminish Dr. Tjian's character. If anything, I wish I could approach science with his enthusiasm and work-ethic. Dr. Tjian began his education at UC Berkeley. As an undergraduate, he worked Dr. Daniel Koshland (after whom the building in which Tjian now works is named, and winner of the 1998 Lasker Award for Special Achievment in Medical Science). Koshland was so impressed with Tjian that he brought him to Oxford to assist in his sabbatical research. After his stint at Oxfor, Tjian went to Harvard for his PhD (which he finished in less that 3 years). He then pursued post-doctoral research with Nobel Prize winner James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, where he isolated with first eukaryotic transcription factor (SV40 large T antigen). Throughout all of these periods, he displayed phenomenal techinal prowess, great ingenuity, and an incredible work ethic, leading most who met him to assume that he would accomplish great things as an independent investigator.
They weren't wrong. Tjian went to Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1979, where he began his monumental career examining the mechanistic basis of eukaryotic transcription. His first major discovery was indentifying the first human transcription factor, Sp1. From there, Tjian never looked-back, and continued to achieve accomplishments, that grad students like myself can only stare at in slack-jawed awe. I recommend searching pubmed with - Tjian R 1989 - to see an example of what he accomplished in one slightly better than average Tijan year.
To me, the one great mark of Tjian's success is looking at the places where his one-time trainees have gone. Tjian may have expected a lot from his students and post-docs, but, as mentioned above, Tjian would open every door they could possibly reach for. The same former student mentioned above said that Tjian had his pick of the best newly-minted PhDs of the day, and they accomlished incredible things in his laboratory. He, in turn, helped them to move-on to incredibly productive independent careers. Some of his former trainees include: James Kadonaga (UCSD), Kathy Jones (Salk), Steve Smale (HHMI/UCLA), Stephen Bell (HHMI/MIT), Stephen Jackson (Cambridge; interesting side-note: Dr. Jackson was supposedly the youngest professor to be granted tenure at Cambridge since Isaac Newton), Bryan Dynlacht (NYU), Anders Naar (Harvard), Mark Biggin (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories), Laura Attardi (Stanford), Naoko Tanese (NYU), Benjamin Pugh (Penn State), Richard Myers (Stanford), Donald Rio (Berkeley), amonst many, many more.
That's why Bob Tjian is my science hero.
PS, I don't link to other webpages, because (A) I'm lazy and (B) I assume that, if you really care, you can google it. Sorry Dave.


Anonymous Coward said...

Awesome Joel, this is becoming my favorite column!

Bayman said...

Yeah great stuff. But how come you never talk about Canadian science?