Ron Plasterk on From California to Caltech: Working with John Sulston
  Ron Plasterk     Biography    
Recorded: 07 Jun 2004

I was a post doc with him [John Sulston] not that long actually, but it was really an interesting experience because—I’m from a good lab, but a somewhat small time lab in Leiden. I did a postdoc at Caltech where I saw American science and I was so amazed. This was in the department of Lee Hood who was the chairman of the department. I was with Mel Simon and we had [John] Abelson. There were a lot of very good people there. Seymour Benzer was in the building next door.

And I said that this was the way to go. It was competitive and fast and everybody was working twenty-four/seven and there was a lot of grant money and a lot of papers in Nature and Science and all that. So I felt this is the way to go.

Then, because I wanted to work on the worm and learn about that I went to the Medical Research Council in Cambridge to work with John Sulston. It was totally different because people were just sitting there, drinking tea in the afternoon, seeming not to work so hard. In actual fact, they were working seriously. The labs were small. There wasn’t a lot of talk about money and grants. And publishing in Nature was somewhat looked down upon.

[During] my postdoc in Mel Simon’s lab I had published a paper in Nature. Actually it was not a letter, it was an article in Nature. Then I gave a lecture about that at a meeting in Birmingham, in England, which was a medical meeting. And I said, let’s be proper. I was wearing a jacket because they were all M.D.s. I came to Cambridge to find an apartment for this second postdoc in John’s lab. This was the week the Nature paper came out. So later on when I was in his lab and I became good friends with Alan Coulson. Alan was in the pub and told me John had said, “Oh, I don’t know about this guy. He wears a jacket, he publishes in Nature.” He felt that this was not the way to go because Fred Sanger who was the role model there had published everything he did in the Journal of Molecular Biology. What’s wrong with JMB—the Journal of Molecular Biology? There’s a lot of space; it’s fairly slow, which is good, so you know there’s no desire to rush out any papers—you [can] think about it once more. It was a very different culture. It was good for me; it was a learning experience that there isn’t—coming from Leiden going to Caltech and being impressed and rightly so—that there is not one way to do science well because the other way—in Cambridge there were like six Nobel laureates down the hall, so it’s hard to argue with that. But it just shows that there are different ways of doing excellent science.

I mentioned Alan Coulson, who was actually quite impressive. He was a technician with Fred Sanger when Sanger did the sequencing. He actually did quite a bit of the chemistry for that. He became the technician basically with John Sulston when they started mapping the worm genome and sequencing the worm genome later. He’s a very soft spoken and modest person and he’s very good.

The irony was that when sequencing was discovered, it was done in two places. One was in Boston by Maxam and Gilbert; the Maxam and Gilbert sequencing. The other was by Fred Sanger and Alan Coulson. And then both the P.I.s got a Nobel Prize; Gilbert and Sanger, so Maxam who was also a technician was made a professor there. So I said to Alan, “Why don’t you get your Ph.D.?” And he said, “Well, I’d really rather go fishing.” He didn’t care about that stuff at all. He just wanted to do the science and was happy with that. I think he played a very important role in the whole genome project.

Of course John Sulston was there too and I was very impressed by him. He is a very modest person and very idealistic. He became more radical because of the whole thing in the genome projects because of this whole thing with Craig Venter’s company. So that may have made him a bit more outspoken, but he was always very modest and soft spoken.

Ronald Plasterk, is a Dutch politician of the Labour Party and successful scientist and molecular genetics. He studied biology at the Leiden University and economics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1981 he received the Dutch doctorandus degree in biology. In 1984 he earned a doctorate in mathematics and natural sciences from the University of Leiden.

After receiving his Ph.D. he moved to California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and worked as a post-doc (1985-1986) on the transposon sequences in DNA in the parasite Borrelia hermsii. Plasterk was also a post-doc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (1986-1987) where he studied Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode that is used as a model organism. His major area of research include genetics and functional genomics.

He came back to the Netherlands in 1987 and became a group leader and member of the board of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Between 1989 and 2000 he was director of the research school of oncology at the institute. From 1997 till 2000 he was professor of molecular genetics at the University of Amsterdam. In 2000 was appointed director of the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology (Hubrecht Laboratory) and at the same time he was a professor in developmental genetics at Utrecht University.

In February 2007 Ronald Plasterek was appointed minister of Education, Culture and Science in the fourth Balkenende government and he decided to end his scientific career. He held this position until February 2010. He is a member of the House of Representatives and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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