“Scientists like to gossip about Science” and other insights with Dr. Joseph Lipsick
My favorite class I’ve taken at Stanford thus far happened freshman fall. After the class ended, I got to sit down with my professor, Dr. Joseph Lipsick, and learn a little more about his life, his research, and the MD-PhD life. Here’s some background info to keep you on-track:
His lab, Lipsick Laboratory, is studying a group of genes called Myb. Myb is an oncogene: a gene that in certain circumstances can cause a healthy cell to become cancerous. This gene specifically is linked to cancers of the blood, brain, breast, and salivary glands. The protein that the Myb gene family codes for influences DNA replication and cell division, so if a person has a mutated version of this gene, they’ll almost invariably develop cancer. Further, research so far indicates that the way the gene is regulated has a lot to do with epigenetics. Here’s a quote from the lab’s website, linked above, that explains it: “In contemporary usage, the word “epigenetic” refers to the inheritance of stable states of gene expression that are not due to differences in the DNA sequence of an organism or its cells.” So even though basically all the cells in the human body have the same DNA, skin cells are very different from brain cells and so on. If you’re interested, check out his site for more science.
Dr. Lipsick also spoke a lot about his experience having an MD-PhD, or the degrees of both a medical doctor and research scientist. This is also referred to as a Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) degree. If you’re considering pursuing an MD-PhD yourself, read on. If you pay taxes and want to learn more about something the government is spending your money on, read on. And if you just want to hear a cool story from an interesting and accomplished person, then read on!
Fascinate Publication: I remember you mentioned in lecture last quarter that you went to college to be a poet?
Dr. Joseph Lipsick: Yeah, so I went to college when I was pretty young, at sixteen. After high school, I was kind of getting in trouble, so they said, ‘Go to school.’ I majored in English literature, mostly creative writing and also biology to keep my father happy. My dad was a musician who then became an engineer. I think his idea was, ‘Poetry is great but you have to be able to eat; I could take whatever I wanted as long as I studied math or science too.’ Probably not bad advice in some ways. I think as a professor here, I sometimes see students who do things because their parents want them to do it, and I think that’s not so great, you have to do things you’re really interested in. But there is something about being employed, that’s a good thing, right? Unless you hit the lottery, you’re going to work for the rest of your life, so working a job you enjoy doing is not a complete recipe for happiness, but it’s important.
FP: What did you do after college?
JL: After college I went to the west coast, and moved to San Francisco. I published some poems, and was working odd jobs for a while, then I got a job working as a technician in a biochemistry lab and I really liked it. It was more interesting than the [biology] classes. I thought a lot of classes were really boring. Memorize stuff, take an exam, forget. Doing science was a lot more interesting, a lot more fun. It’s almost more improvisation in some ways, more like cooking. There are recipes, but you have to figure out how to get it to work and what the next step is. So I worked there for about two years. And I knew I wanted to do science and the advice at the time was to do the MSTP program, [otherwise known as an MD-PhD,] because the government paid for it. Your tax dollars at work.
FP: How has having the M.D. in addition to the Ph.D. helped?
JL: I think the M.D. really gives you this broad education in human biology and graduate school I’ve found, doesn’t do that. These days, it’s very mechanistic. You [a graduate student] learn a single area in great depth, but you don’t get a broad education. You’ll study just one gene, but not know what the liver is, or what the spleen is. It sounds silly, but I think medical school is good for that. It makes you think about why you’re doing research.
JL: We study an oncogene called Myb discovered in a chicken virus. We studied it a long time in chickens and mice. It’s part of a gene family of three genes that’s rearranged in people with cancer. About twelve or thirteen years ago, I thought we should really be researching genetics to try and understand how it falls into a pathway. We work with fruit flies, and we try to understand what the protein [it codes for] does. It’s part of a bigger machine, and that machine regulates gene expression in an epigenetic way. The idea of epigenetics is that there are inheritable properties of cells that aren’t encoded in the DNA, and this gene family seems to regulate that in some way.
FP: Your lab has been working on this area since the 80s; do most labs stick to a single topic for that long?
JL: There are different styles of labs. I’m a kind of monomaniacal, obsessive type. I like to focus on a question and wherever that goes, to solve that question, and if it’s a hard question, all the better. Some labs like to work on whatever is hot, whatever is going on at the time. You can be very productive that way. I personally don’t think those people don’t contribute that much to science, but some are very successful. There are other people who like to contribute methods. I think that’s really important. A lot of times we’ve progressed to a certain point and the question is hard, and unless there’s some new method the question can’t be answered. Some people make method after method, others make a method and apply it to everything. To a hammer everything looks like a nail, right? Fred Sanger was this one guy working in England in a pretty small lab. He figured out first how to sequence proteins, and some years later, figured out how to sequence DNA, which was hugely important for a lot of other things.
FP: What would you say is rewarding in doing medical research?
JL: I think that in research, you’re your own boss. That’s a great thing. You pretty much get to work on what you want, so it’s your natural curiosity that drives things. I think the rewards in science, they’re not often. You work pretty hard; there’s a lot of frustration, and every now and then you see something new you’ve never seen before and that’s pretty rewarding. Plus, it’s fun to talk about science with other scientists. You’re most interested in what you gossip about, and maybe sadly, scientists like to gossip about science. I think it’s just that basic curiosity of trying to understand things.
FP: Do you think that if you’re someone who wants to get an MD or a PhD, is it worth it to get both?
JL: Yeah I think it is worth it. What I tell people about research, I tell this to students who want to come to the lab or graduate students, is: ‘Try this, immerse yourself in it. If you think it’s the only thing you could do that will make you happy, then you should do it. Otherwise, you should do something else.’
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- Lipsick, J. Epigenetic Regulation by Myb and Friends. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/group/lipsick/cgi-bin/wordpress/?page_id=511
- Joseph Lipsick Interviewed on his Life [Personal interview]. (2016, January 8).
Banner citation: Image courtesy of Jeramiah Winston.