A conversation with Randy Schekman, Nobel laureate and UCLA alumnus
Biologist Randy Schekman, who graduated from the UCLA College of Letters and Science in 1971, was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discoveries of how the cell organizes its molecular transport system — basic science research that holds promise for understanding neurological and immunological disorders.
The seventh UCLA alumnus to become a Nobel laureate, Schekman is a longtime UC Berkeley professor, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and editor-in-chief of eLife, an open-access science journal.
On a recent visit to UCLA, he spoke with Stuart Wolpert on camera about his passion for science, his memories of UCLA, the importance of public research universities and other topics. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
You worked in research laboratories essentially the entire time you were at UCLA, from your first year.
I found this fellow, Dan Ray, who was then a beginning assistant professor, and he said, "Okay, great, fine, come on in." I became immersed in research in his laboratory ... That was the beginning of my passion for research ... I took a genetics class where the instructor said that this guy [James] Watson had just written an interesting autobiography about that period of the discovery of the structure of DNA called 'The Double Helix' and it was coming out serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in the fall of 1967. I remember going to the library and checking out the two successive issues and reading nonstop. To me, that was it. I knew this was what I had to do.
Being in Dan's lab was great ... I found that I had an ability to think somewhat creatively about how things work, how this virus might work — designing experiments to test how that might work. He gave me a lot of freedom to do this. I was there day and night ... This was pushing the envelope, beyond what was in textbooks. That was really exciting to me.
You feel very strongly about the importance of public education and places like UCLA and UC Berkeley as engines of social change for working-class families.
Absolutely. UCLA, Berkeley and several of the other UC campuses bring in more Pell Grant students on each campus than the entire Ivy League put together ... I do know that at Berkeley, and I'm sure it's true at UCLA, kids from families with a net income of $40,000 or less represent 30 percent of the class — an astonishing number. We offer people an opportunity to make a better life for themselves. That's a crucial, crucial feature of what we do.
You have made statements about how you feel California should be treating public education.
It's a tragedy, really. When I was in high school in Orange County, California invested in public schools near the highest in the country in terms of per capita expenditures. It's near the bottom now. The resources were provided by the state back then because it was considered a public good. Unfortunately, higher education, both private and public, has turned into a private commodity, where one has to go into serious debt just to have the opportunity. I fail to see why we have lost that social compact that propelled this institution to where it is today.
University administrators refer to it as "disinvestment." That's a polite term. I call it an abandonment. I think we've been abandoned by the state in favor of prisons ... I think [the University of California system] is still the best public [university] in the world, but unfortunately it's more and more difficult to compete with the privates now ... Most of the American Nobel laureates come from the private institutions. Very few come from publics. This year, of nine American laureates in the sciences and economics, I'm the only one from a public institution ... I think that's a small indication of the fact that states around the country, not just in California, have systematically removed funds from education to plug other gaps.
There are many things that you could do with the Nobel Prize money. I understand that you've decided to donate it to the University of California.
I decided that the money was more useful for the university than it was for me ... I think we need to understand more about basic biology. There's still a lot to be learned. Breakthroughs have come from an understanding of how normal cells grow and divide and what goes wrong in cancer cells. I think ultimately the therapies for all the different forms of cancer will come from basic science rather than by just throwing the kitchen sink at a tumor cell.
I think we will see over this next generation every different form of cancer treated effectively with non-toxic, targeted drugs that go to the heart of the problem in each cell type, or by treatments that power up the immune system to clear out tumor cells — all coming from a basic understanding of how the normal immune system works and how normal cells grow and divide. All this knowledge will derive from basic discoveries, where one cannot predict what kind of discovery will lead where.
My preference is to use the funds from the Esther and Wendy Schekman Chair in Basic Cancer Biology to hire a new assistant professor. We're in a pitched battle with the selective privates in order to lure the best young scholars. The selective privates have big endowments. This endowed chair may give us an edge.
Any advice you might give to somebody considering a career in science?
In science — at least in research — you have to deal with the frustrations of everyday failure. Everyone experiences this. Experiments don't work for any number of reasons ... At UCLA, Berkeley or any university where students are really interested in life science, it's crucial for them to work in a real research setting. Taking classes, reading books, taking laboratory courses — that's fine. But unless you actually get into a research laboratory and experience that yourself firsthand, doing experiments with someone else and by yourself, you cannot possibly know what it's like to do real science.
...To succeed in science at any level, you have to have internal mechanisms to overcome the constant failure. You have to keep your eye on the big picture. You have to see what the goal is … When the rare success occurs, you can taste why you've invested all the time.
Have any undergraduates in your lab reminded you of yourself as an undergraduate?
My very first undergraduate, Vicki Chandler, was a remarkable young woman who … had been divorced, became a secretary, struggled to get into a junior college, realized that she was highly intelligent, was admitted to Berkeley as an undergraduate. She did spectacularly well. She went on to graduate school, has a wonderful career. She's a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is now director of the science program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Northern California.
What qualities make for a great scientist?
You cannot be risk averse if you want to succeed at a high level. You have to be willing to gamble and do something new and preferably something that no one else has done before. Lots of people can think of areas that are underexplored, but when they decide what to do with their own career, they're too reluctant to strike off in a new direction. I always say, take what you've learned and do something new and original.