Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Unconventional Funding for my Lab
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

Well, I’ll tell you some of the things I did. I was very keen to try to purify the factor, the floor plate factor. What turned out to be netrin. Because nothing else seemed as important as getting the factor. We could do lots of cell biological experiments, continue some embryological studies and characterization, but at the end of the day what mattered at that time was to get our hands on the factor. No guidance molecules were known. No chemo-attractants were known. No chemo repellents were known. And it was clear we were in the pre-history if you will of axon guidance and it was very clear that to really advance the field we had to get our hands on the factors. That’s what drove me into the field of axon guidance in the first place. So I knew all along that’s what I wanted to do. So there was a dose of realism as I was explaining where we convinced ourselves that it was probably doable. No guarantees, but it wasn’t completely crazy. But very deliberately at the time, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anybody else, I didn’t write an NIH grant. I was certain that I wouldn’t get funding and I didn’t want to be bothered. It takes a lot of work to put these grants together. I was fortunate that as a starting assistant professor that you can get junior faculty awards so I sort of bulked up on junior faculty awards. I was fortunate also that some of the disease foundations were interested in funding this. The Spinal Cord Research Foundation provided funds as well.

So I cobbled together funding from people who either cared about this from the point of view of application or from people who just support, an organization that supports young people and went for broke. In fact I submitted my first NIH grant after we purified the netrins. I figured by that point they would be willing to fund the work. But not before. So again I don’t necessarily recommend this to people who start out. I think it’s a good idea to get the NIH grant in. I will say that I didn’t want to be distracted by minor issues. And I think hat I would recommend if you want to tackle a big problem. Don’t get distracted by many, many other things because you need to be able to focus if you want to make progress.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a pioneer in developmental neurobiology, is currently president of The Rockefeller University in New York, where he heads the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, and oversees 70 independent laboratories that operate within the university. He is the first industry executive to serve as president of Rockefeller. He joined Genentech, Inc. in 2003 as Senior Vice President, Research Drug Discovery, and was promoted to Executive Vice President, Research Drug Discovery in June, 2008. In that capacity, he was responsible for research management of all therapeutic areas of research, including a team of 1,400 researchers and his own research lab. His research at Genentech on the development of the brain uncovered details of how Alzheimer's disease is triggered.

Born in Canada in 1959, he was also raised in Belgium and the UK, and has lived in the US since 1990. Marc completed an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from McGill University (B.Sc., 1980), and a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar, B.A., 1982). Prior to earning his Ph.D. at University College London (1986) in neurophysiology, Marc became the national coordinator of the Canadian Student Pugwash Organization, which promotes awareness and action relating to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and other ethical implications of science and technology policy. During his postdoctoral work at UCL and Columbia University, Marc’s research focus became developmental neurobiology. From 1991 to 2001 he was on the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco.

From 1994 to 2003 he was also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His famous discovery of the netrins (a class of proteins involved in axon guidance) occurred in 1994 while he was at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000 he co-founded the biopharmaceutical company Renovis. From 2001-2003 he was the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences and a professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University.

Among the many awards Marc has received for his work in neuroscience are the McKnight Investigator Award (1994), the Ameritec Prize (1995), the Foundation IPSEN Prize for Neuronal Plasticity (shared, 1996), the Viktor Hamburger Award, International Society for Developmental Neuroscience (1997), the Wakeman Award for spinal cord injury research (shared, 1998), the Robert Dow Neuroscience Award (2003), and the Reeve-Irvine Research Medal (shared, 2006). Tessier-Lavigne has been elected a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom.