James Sherley on John Cairns
  James Sherley     Biography    
Recorded: 06 Sep 2001

I want to start with John’s humanity and I haven’t known him very long but he’s done—he probably doesn’t appreciate what he’s done for me. I just don’t think he knows. I do want to share this because I have been trying to share this more in my life because I am a black man. And I am a black scientist. And I’ve spent most of my career being one of few in these meetings. So very often when I meet people for the first time I never know what their reaction is going to be to meeting me. Maybe having had conversations about me, but not actually meeting me. And I’ve had experiences over the years that have been very difficult. One of them is, you know when you’re a student and you’re young you read papers. And if you’re like me, you just really get into the history of the science and you get an opportunity to meet someone whose paper you’ve read, whose work you’ve followed and I’ve had earlier meetings like that and they’ve been disappointing because people haven’t been accepting of me. And so being much older now when I was scheduled to have my first meeting with John Cairns I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. I mean I had—well, talk about how John’s work has been important in our work but, you know, over the years I’ve thought a lot about this man, what he’s like, and who he is, and things he’s done, and how could he have these thoughts? And then the day came when I was going to meet him.

The first time was 2001, this year in March, I think it was March—no it was later, it might have been May. I think in May. I’m sure I have the exact date written down someplace. But I remember I was going to meet him and I had that old thought that this was going to be another one of these moments when you know I’m going to meet someone and they’re not going to just be natural with me. He was absolutely a wonderful human being. He’s just completely good in that respect. It was like thirty seconds after meeting John I wasn’t worried about that anymore. It was just really a very important moment for me to realize that it didn’t have to always be as it had been in many other times. And I think it’s because of the kind of person that John is. You know, we’ve had conversations over the paper that we’re working on now and one of the things I’ve liked about him—I think he’s very much aware of what he’s like. So he said to me, he says, “Well, I would really love to review your paper.” And I thought and I said, “Great! We’d really love for you to review it!” He expressed, he said, “Well, you know. I want to be completely honest with you and I don’t really know you that well yet.” And I knew he was concerned about how I would take criticism. Well, there’s nothing better than constructive, well-meant criticism, and that’s exactly what he gives, so it’s just been really neat reading his comments about what we’ve written. How astute he is, I guess, in reading things and thinking about how they’re going to be perceived, how they’re going to be read, how they’re going to be interpreted. So it’s just been fun! I mean, my—this whole exchange has just been—this has been the best year of my scientific career. And in large part it’s because of having had this connection with him.

The way I came to meet him is because Leona Samson who is one of his graduate students is now a member of our faculty. And when I shared with her—I found about this, oh this is someone who knew John Cairns, I need to talk with her.

Leona Samson. She is a wonderful person. So I talked with her about this. She said, “You know, it would be nice if you could meet John. He comes and visits me on average once a year and he’ll be here soon. So maybe when he’s here, we could work something out when you can meet him.” But she was concerned. She said, “Well, you know, he’s much older now. His stamina is not what it used to be and I just don’t want to promise that he’s going to meet with you because he might come here from this meeting in Seattle and not be up to it.” So I had this image of a very elderly man who is barely getting along, getting around, with people ushering him here and there. And I meet him and he’s just as quick as a whip. I mean I didn’t I see any fatigue of any type at all. All I saw was this incredible enthusiasm for the science. So intellectually I mean he’s just—I don’t know what his brilliance was before, but it could only have grown, I guess. So, I mean—one of the things I find in science, since there are lots of different kinds of scientists: There are those who are willing to really push ideas to the fullest extent and there are the other ones who don’t like to think about those things cause maybe they’re not true. And John’s the first type. He really likes to think about things in their full size, full extension of them and that’s what I like to do. So we really hit it off and I think—I mean, I’ve been impressed that this person could have formulated this idea about how stem cells segregate their DNA at the time he did. I mean my students and I have talked about this—how did he come up with these ideas, and it was so neat to hear him talk about this. How he had looked at lots of different information and brought these ideas together to try to explain something, an anomaly in the cancer kinetics and he’s still working on that. That was the other thing. I mean, he’s still working and writing and thinking about these things. The other thing I thought is that, you know, I’ve met people who have worked on problems in the past and you know its been twenty seven years since John published that paper, the 1975 report of the idea of immortal strands in stem cells. It’s a long time. And I was just stunned that he was still thinking about how to solve the problem. How to discover the strands! And when we met, he had an idea for me to think about. What we’ve been able to do is to show that John’s hypothesis is possible. That there are cells that handle their DNA exactly as he predicted cells in the body would. We haven’t shown it in the body, that’s been the real tough thing. And John’s still thinking about how to do that. So it’s going to be neat, I think, in the ensuing years.

Collaborate with him, yeah. The only thing we’ve been able to do is develop better tools to ask the same kinds of questions and I think we’ve been thinking about the problem a bit different only because we have the benefit of what he had already laid out.

James Sherley is a scientist on the forefront of adult stem-cell research. He earned his B.A. from Harvard University and his M.D./Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology (BCMB Program) from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

He was a Principal Investigator in the Division of Medical Science at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is currently a Principal Investigator at the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health at MIT. His present research is in integrated studies in somatic stem cell kinetics.

Sherley was honored as a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Science in 1993, and in 2001 became a Pew Science and Society Institute Fellow.