Recorded: 15 Jun 2002
Well, it’s changing a lot. I mean, I’m no soothsayer so I can’t see the future. The lab will be bigger, of course. They’re talking about developing, you know, campus space building new facilities going into other areas. So they’ll be bigger. They’ll be more complicated. They’ll need more money. Some of the intimacy by definition will go away as a result of both. Those things are inevitable.
We’re actually—the way biology is going is quite another matter. I have a feeling we’re moving into a phase where there’s a lot of what you might call “big” biology. The genome project, you know, has given rise to a series of experiments where, you know; we see papers with fifteen or twenty authors on them. Its almost like physics, you know, was at the turn of the century. And it’s a different approach to doing science.
If I were to believe that working on single genes was completely old-fashioned, there was nothing else to learn because you weren’t studying biological networks and you had to do that using genomics and bioinformatics and so on, I would feel that the opportunity to do hypothesis-generated research has perhaps been taken away to some extent. But I also realize that, at the next level, even if you accumulate this massive amount of data and massage it with mathematical algorithms—clearly these are skills that I don’t have, but assuming that one could grow and develop those skills—at the end, putting the story together is still the same problem. There are just, you know, more marbles in the jar, right? So instead of having five red and three blue ones, you know you got hundreds of them. But there’s still, you know, there’s still an answer in there somewhere, right? I mean, there’s an order to them. And you still need to figure it out. And you’ll still need a hypothesis probably to ask good questions even at that higher level. So I’m not sure that the process will change, but I think that the way that individuals are invested in getting answers will change. And I also think that the demand for new skills is going to change—make people like me less important in the future and put perhaps a higher premium on things like computational biology—I just use that as an example as something that I cannot possibly do. … if you’re not a mathematician, you just don’t go there. So, you know, at least in biology I’ve managed to move from different field to field because I’ve never felt constrained, but as we move into this genomics era, I find that there are things there that to me really look like conceptual obstacles that I may not be able to overcome. In other words, I may not have the skills that are required for what you need to do ten years from now. Of course by then I may be finished anyway. So that might be quite okay.
Charles Sherr earned his joint M.D./Ph.D. degree from New York University in 1973. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator based at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. His work focuses on retroviral oncogenes, growth factors and their receptors, and cell cycle control. In 1991, Sherr's laboratory discovered the mammalian D-type G1 cyclins and went on to identify the cyclin-dependent kinases with which they associate, as well as a series of polypeptide inhibitors that negatively regulate their activities.
Sherr is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has won numerous awards and is the author of more than 235 scientific articles. He joined the National Cancer Institute in 1973, becoming a member of the NIH staff in 1975 and head of the viral pathology section, Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention, in 1977. In 1983, he relocated to St. Jude. Sherr is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.