Charles Sherr on History in Biology
  Charles Sherr     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2002

Well, I don’t think that anybody who looks at a C.V. would say, “Oh, wow” because you’re only as good as what you did last Wednesday. Oh, no. This is very funny. I’m going to tell you a story that you’ll probably like. I moved through several different areas each of which I’ve been in let’s say five, six, seven years tops. So the first was retroviruses, then oncogenes, and a gene that I was interested in turned out to be a receptor, so I worked on a receptor—an oncogene encoding the receptor for colony-simulating factor-1. Then as a result of receptor signaling I got interested in the cell cycle. We discovered D-cyclin, CDK-4, and that led us to CDK-inhibitors and tumor suppressors, and that’s what I’m working on now. So there’s been a kind of evolution from field to field. But, I’ll tell you how it goes.If you leave a field you’re immediately forgotten. So I’ve left three fields to work in the latest one. Years ago, I think it was around 1991 or 2 —this is a true story: I went to a big meeting—American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. We were at the Moscone Center in this poster [session] and there were thousands of posters in this huge convention center and I had an hour or so strolling up and down. And suddenly there was a poster on the colony-simulating factor-1 receptor, which Dick Stanley and I had discovered. And there was a young woman, a graduate student I thought, standing by the poster and I went by. And I had big name badge on. And I said, “Oh, I see you’re working on the CSF-1 receptor.” And she looked at my name badge and she said, “Yes.” She said, “Do you know anything about this receptor?” And I blurted out, I said, “You know my dad used to work on this,” I said. And she said, “You know, I think I recognize his name.” So that’s how famous you are in science. It’s a very good lesson there. I have a lot of students—not a lot, but its happened to me a couple of times where students have come up to me and asked me if I knew something about something that I had actually worked on, or even worked on first. So it’s a very interesting experience because it tells you that you’re really not that important to the field—that for people who begin doing science, the clock starts running the day they start. They have no concept of history. And I think—and they don’t care. And if I tell my students—we have a lab meeting every Friday, the students and postdocs, and we sit there and every once in a while I ask a sort of historic question, “Well, you know, who discovered splicing?” I say. And they all look. They have no idea. They have no idea. If I say, “Who discovered the genetic code?” They have no idea. And if I push them and say, “Don’t you think it’s important to have some sort of relationship to the past and to understand who preceded you and how things got the way they got, you know?” They’re not that interested. They’re looking ahead. They don’t look back. And this is a quality of young people, which I well understand. More interesting is technology. I said to a woman who was making a phage library with a kit. It had two tubes; orange and green. She would take a sample from the orange tube and put it in the green tube and suddenly there were bacteriophage; live bacteriophage, right, growing in bacteria. And I said, “Susie?” I said, “What happens when you add the ten microliters from one tube into the other tube?” And she said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Doesn’t it strike you as profound that you can pipette in DNA and come out with phage?” And she said, “How do you expect me to understand what goes on in the kit and do my work at the same time?” So these are the lessons I have as a mentor. I think it[history]’s essential. I mean to give you an example from my own—as I say, moving from field to field. When we found D-cyclin and started to interact with David on that topic and before the paper was published, I had to write the results. And I had read all the papers that I could get my hands on of all these people in the cell cycle field who at that time I did not know, right? I mean there was a Nobel Prize source—you know [Leland] Hartwell and [Paul] Nurse and [Timothy] Hunt, I didn’t know who they were. Mark Kirschner—[David] Beach I ran into by accident; you know, Murray, Glotzer, you know, one after another, right—an entire field of people—Steve Reed. I mean I didn’t know anybody. But I had read their key papers and I had gone back through the previous decade and tried to assemble a bibliography. And when I sent that paper in, I was concerned that the referencing would not be accurate because despite my best efforts, and in spite of all the time I spent with it as a stranger to the field, I thought I might get it wrong. So I sent the paper to David and asked him to look at it. Of course, David was too busy to render any comments at all. When I submitted the paper to Cell, Ben Lewin had the year before done a review on the cell cycle. And I asked him as a favor not only to have the paper reviewed, but would he personally look at the references and tell me if they were correct or not. Because I was very concerned. So in that respect to answer your question, understanding the history of the field was critically important in entering the field. I mean, how can you possibly enter a field without knowing who has contributed the day before, the year before, ten years before? I mean how can you go into the cell cycle field without knowing who these people are? So I didn’t know the people but I knew their work.

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.

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