Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1999
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S C I E N C E    &    T E C H N O L O G Y

Model Mentors
By Joanne P. Cavanaugh

On the Bay 1 fridge in Bert Vogelstein's cancer research laboratory is a penned note: "The Most Highly Cited Refrigerator in the World." Next to that felt tip-marked assertion are a few other scribbles that read, "Bay 1 to World: Bite Me" and "Bay of Pigs."

Nights run pretty late in one of the most productive research labs at Johns Hopkins University. Here, science investigators are pulling DNA out of cultured cells, looking for mutations in possible tumor suppressor genes, checking chromosome numbers in cancerous cells, and conducting other molecular investigations meant to foster colon cancer detection and treatment.

Vogelstein and his research colleague, associate professor Kenneth W. Kinzler, hire 16 postdocs in their Bond Street lab near Hopkins's Outpatient Center in East Baltimore. Their research operation--though viewed as a place where young scientists work long, long hours--is also often cited as a model for what works within the postdoctoral fellowship system. And that's coming from the postdocs themselves.

Says Ashani Weeraratna, a fellow who works in an oncology lab next door: "Bert Vogelstein treats his postdocs like gold. There is a beach house where they can get a break after working like slaves. And everyone who goes out of that lab gets jobs."

Vogelstein is sitting in his office one afternoon, the doorway filled with a green bamboo-style curtain, a desk lamp casting a soft light on his computer and a chair next to his desk. He laughs quietly when the Delaware seashore house, which is owned by Kinzler, is mentioned. "We do little things to try to make it up a little for them," he says, acknowledging the late hours and standard low, NIH-based pay. "Ken and I hold them in such high regard.

"We try to help by creating an environment where they are free to do science; we encourage them to spend time thinking how they will choose to work on a project that is publishable in a good journal," he says.

Vogelstein and Kinzler preface a recent book they edited, The Genetic Basis of Human Cancer, with an appreciative nod to their trainees: "We would like to thank the young investigators (postdoctoral fellows and students) whose contributions often go unrecognized but who are largely responsible for the revolution in cancer research that has occurred over the last two decades."

Vogelstein, also an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute here, rarely travels even though he has invitations. He tells his postdocs his place is in the lab. When he does speak, he donates any honorarium to graduate student funds at those universities. He tells his Hopkins students not to panic if a job in academia doesn't work out right away: After all, he has contacts all over the world.

Once a month, there's a special "Up Close and Personal" lab meeting in which someone in the lab tells his or her life story. The beach house is open for postdocs to get away; there's a sign-up sheet. "That all makes a difference," says Ellie Carson-Walter, a postdoctoral fellow there. "You don't necessarily expect that from a high-powered lab that has its name in 'quotes' or is spoken about in hushed tones."

Among other discoveries, the Vogelstein-Kinsler lab is credited with linking certain genes, or gene pathways, to colon cancer and helping develop diagnostic tests for families that may be predisposed. Vogelstein is one of the--if not the --mostly highly cited scientist in the world, according to recent surveys. Kinzler is a close second.

Carson-Walter talks about her experiences as she walks among the lab's sterile hoods, incubators, centrifuges, and shelves lined with blue-capped bottles of chemical solutions: "I have two mentors who are always very interested in knowing what is going on in everyone's project, but they aren't constantly looking over your shoulders."

Hopkins professor Andrew P. Feinberg was Vogelstein's first postdoc; he worked in the lab in the early 1980s when Vogelstein began his cancer research. The two discovered altered DNA methylation in cancerous cells--revealing one of the biological mechanisms that can lead to tumor growth. Feinberg later became a junior faculty member in Vogelstein's lab, then a Hughes Investigator at the University of Michigan, before he returned to Hopkins in 1994 as a professor in various departments, including Medicine, Oncology, and Molecular Biology.

"Bert was absolutely fantastic to work with. He changed my life, scientifically," Feinberg says, comparing the mentoring relationship to a family. "You have such a free flow of ideas and excitement about the work. Before, when I was in college, I studied philosophy. The Platonic definition of friendship is the common pursuit of the good. If you are working closely on something worthwhile, that's the effect on mentor and student."