On the loss of a mentor: Al Malkinson, lung cancer researcher, scholar, gentleman
Note to Readers: After reading through my writing here and at my Take As Directed blog between October, 2011, and October, 2012, I’ve decided to submit this post as my entry for The Best Science Writing Online 2013, formerly The Open Laboratory. The 2012 version was published by the Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint of Scientific American.
While the post details my emotions and recollections over a personal loss, I believe that it best reflects one of my strengths as a science writer: use of a personal story to touch on our own universal experiences as human beings who chose science as our vocation. All of you must have someone like Al Malkinson in your life. And he supported women in science long before special discussions groups on the topic even existed.
Finally, I also feel that my closing discussion — the lost art of the Festschrift — is an issue we must revitalize in modern scientific research. We rarely recognize our mentors and leaders while they are alive. I hope that my writing here motivates me (and you) to take action to formally celebrate the contributions of those who are still with us.
Those who make the deepest impression on you become the fabric of your being. Think about those who’ve passed through your life and have influenced your approach to science, society, family. . .
Even if years have passed since seeing one another, the lessons and attributes of these very special people continue to stay with you. But rarely do we truly get to express to these treasured souls just how much they have meant to us.
My first faculty mentor, lung cancer researcher Alvin M. Malkinson, PhD, passed away last Friday in Boulder, CO, at age 71.
Professionally, Al was Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy, now on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. But if you were fortunate enough to know him, you learned that he was a scholar of the world, lover of the arts, and true gentleman.
I last visited the pharmacy school two years ago and had learned from colleagues that Al had been ill. He apparently deteriorated rapidly during this July and passed from pneumonia secondary to other complications.
I hadn’t been able to get back to Denver last summer or this year but I now realize that wasn’t an excuse not to at least call Al. I always remember Al as a vibrant, worldly soul whose intellectual energy, I thought, was likely to power him for a couple more decades. Alas, he has left us early – far too early – and without some of us being able to say goodbye.
Recruited me for first faculty position
After finishing my PhD at the University of Florida in 1989, I traveled to the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver to work in endocrinology and medical oncology on transcription factor protein-protein interactions in cancer. With my two advisors, we focused on the cyclic AMP-response element binding protein, or CREB. When signals outside the cell cause machinery inside the cell to convert ATP to cAMP, CREB is one of the proteins to which cAMP binds. CREB in turn activates genes that execute cAMP-dependent responses.
Turns out that Al had a long history of studying proteins that bound cAMP. And at the time he was just up the road apiece – on the main campus in Boulder where the pharmacy school had sat since
1910 1911, separated from the medical school by 30 miles. But Al was a member of our NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center and we would come together annually from all CU campuses for poster sessions and talks. At one of these events, I was introduced to him and immediately struck by his aura of warmth and acute interest in my experiments and career plans. I later learned that Al had been a reviewer – an enthusiastic one, I assume – of my first local grant for $10,000 funded by the Colorado Cancer League.
Al mentioned that a long-time teaching professor at the pharmacy school was about to retire, a somewhat last-minute decision. The school planned to hire two new assistant professors to pick up the teaching load and further build their research programs. I was still early in my postdoc, perhaps only a year in, but Al encouraged me to apply. He thought that my graduate school experience of teaching pharmacy students and having a BS from a pharmacy school would give me a leg up over more experienced researchers who lacked pharmacy school ties. This attribute was as important as the candidate’s research program because those hired would have to begin teaching pharmacy classes immediately – without any “protected time” to establish their laboratory programs.
I again learned later that Al was a strong proponent of my hiring – me, a 28-year-old postdoc with two years experience and four, peer-reviewed publications, a number that grew to eight after papers I submitted during my postdoc were accepted. I didn’t do all the right things like go to Harvard and do a postdoc with a Nobel laureate but Al and several senior faculty members saw something that led them to take a gamble on me.
Consummate scholar, man of the world
Al, however, did have the right pedigree and a long record of diverse training. After undergraduate work in psychology at the University of Buffalo, he earned his PhD in genetics and biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University in 1969. Al then traveled with his new bride, Lynn, to serve in the Peace Corps in Kenya, lecturing in veterinary biochemistry at the University of Nairobi. After two years in Kenya, he reassimilated into laboratory work with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Leicester in England then returned to the States for two more years at Yale University.
While in New Haven, he worked with Paul Greengard, a pioneer in the study of how the phosphorylation and dephosphorylation of proteins inside neurons were triggered from outside the cell by brain chemicals we call neurotransmitters. Greengard would later move to Rockefeller University and share the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Arvid Carlsson and Eric Kandel.
The University of Minnesota was where Al launched his independent research career in 1974 until Colorado came calling in 1978. Al spent the rest of his career at the CU School of Pharmacy with a joint appointment in the Department of Pharmacology at CU Medical School. The 204 papers he published during his career earned him a respectable h-index of 40. A 2009 PDF of his CV can be accessed here.
Working with Al from 1992 until 2000 or so, I came to know that his warmth was genuine. While he did not suffer fools gladly, he had a penchant for helping trainees and junior faculty to identify their strengths and encouraged them to develop their potential. He had no patience for administrative nonsense but would gladly take his lunch with any student who wanted to talk about their research.
When the pharmacy school moved from the idyllic main campus in Boulder to the research-intensive urban medical campus in Denver, Al remained the consummate professor and scholar. His lush white hair and beard contrasted with his sweater and jeans and his stacks of papers – really, above-your-head stacks – that threatened to assault you in his office marked him as an old-timey, eccentric professor. The department gave him a computer so he’d use email, but I recall a long time where he refused to use it, instead piling papers on the back of the monitor.
Al was the professor who refused to allow the asphalt and exhaust of the East Denver campus interfere with how he taught in Boulder. His graduate cancer biology class could often be seen meeting outside the pharmacy school under one of the few trees that remained on the CU Health Sciences Center campus.
I came to learn that Al not only loved his science. Together with his lovely wife, Lynn, the Malkinsons were patrons of the arts. Perhaps his greatest passion was cinema – Al could’ve easily been a professional movie critic given his sharp insights and voracious appetite for films, well over 100 movies a year. He loved fine wine and great food, singing the praises of Denver’s restaurant renaissance in the mid-1990s. Al also quietly wrote novels. Dark novels, he told me. You can’t find them on Amazon and I believe that some were published under a pseudonym. I think he’d be tickled to know that my new faculty appointment at NC State is now in the Department of English where I’ll be teaching science writing for the media to humanities and science students alike.
And travel. Beyond their world travels, Al and Lynn religiously took time yearly to go to Cabo San Lucas. He repeatedly impressed upon me the need to schedule regular times away from the lab to live life and rejuvenate the creative mind. I still don’t do that well enough.
Praise for progeny
Al’s obituary in the Boulder Daily Camera notes correctly that his love for science and movies paled in comparison to his love for his family. I never had the pleasure of spending much time with Al’s family. But I’ll never forget one statement he made about his son, Zak. It’s a story I’ve told many times in discussing parenting with friends.
I believe that Zak was at the University of California at Berkeley – he and I are about ten years apart in age – and had come home to visit with his parents. Al and I were out enjoying a beverage with our biochemistry colleague, Carlos Catalano. I don’t recall exactly what Al told us about Zak’s latest activities but I can remember him beaming and speaking excitedly. When he was finished updating us on Zak, he said, “My son is the most interesting person I know.”
For a guy so well-versed in science and the arts to say that about his son tells me that I’d be honored to have Al and Lynn’s parenting skills.
The Four Generation Club
Earlier I discussed the pivotal role Al played in my being hired into my first tenure-track faculty position. After being appointed, new assistant professors were evaluated three-and-a-half years later by the departmental appointment, promotion, and tenure committee to gauge whether we were on a favorable trajectory when we came up for tenure three years later.
My mid-tenure evaluation was not going to be stellar. I was having trouble scoring a big NIH grant after having only some local funding and a small NIH Shannon Award (an old mechanism that gave me two years at $50,000/year). It took me two-and-a-half years for my laboratory to publish our first independent peer-reviewed paper. Sure, I had won some teaching awards but I knew well that the pharmacy school was building its research stature to compete with other departments in the medical school. I was told, in essence, to get my shit together.
Al came down to my office with some advice: even if I was having trouble getting grants, I should do all I could to publish papers, even if they were not for the tier of journal to which I aspired. Being young and all full of piss and vinegar, I balked that I was not going to compromise my science and publish crappy papers just so I could get tenure. Al patiently listened and nodded as his face assumed a mischievous look.
“Well, Dave,” he said, “ that’s probably not the wisest path to tenure.”
But Al didn’t just wander off and let it lie. Together with our colleague Carlos, Al put together what I believe was a support group and intervention. It came to be known as the Four Generation Club. Not four generations exactly. Instead, we were four guys representing four decades of pharmacy profs.
The senior member, V. Gene Erwin, was a neuroscientist hired in the 1960s and held positions from dean and department chair to co-director of CU’s NIAAA-funded Alcohol Research Center. (While Gene was a postdoc at Johns Hopkins, he identified that the outer mitochondria membrane of neurons was that site of monoamine oxidase enzymes that terminate the action of several neurotransmitters). Al, of course, represented faculty hired in the 1970s. Carlos Enrique Catalano was a biochemist representing the 1980s. Carlos was the molecular biology pioneer of research in the pharmacy school and someone with whom I already held joint lab meetings with my very small group. I rounded out the 4GenClub as the green prof hired in 1992.
Our discussions over beers at a local pub were your typical scientific fare. But tossed in between sips were tips on papers and grantsmanship as well as historical insights on our department and school that helped clarify some politics. I look back now at how rare an opportunity this was for a junior faculty member. Each of these guys had plenty of other duties between academia and family. At their level of seniority, they had no real incentive to do this for me – they just did.
In fact, Al, Gene, Carlos, and other senior faculty at Colorado spoiled me for the rest of my career. I thought that all senior faculty acted this supportively – another senior prof told me that they should really take on more committee work so that us newly hired faculty could focus on our work – and I have yet to experience this magnitude of community and shared responsibility again in my academic positions.
A few Al Malkinson gems stand out. As we were discussing a senior scientist who did not espouse our values, Al said, “He told me that all he wants to do is become a National Academy (of Sciences) member. Can you imagine that being your sole motivation in this business?” For Al, understanding lung cancer and the training of the next generation of scientists were his motivators.
And when I was carrying on about how difficult the path to tenure seemed, Al recommended that I read Moo, by Jane Smiley. A work of fiction, Moo is apparently a thinly-veiled representation of the University of California at Davis. The administrative, political, and personal machinations described in the book made me feel very fortunate that the politics of my department paled in comparison.
Support of women scientists
Another area where Al inspired me as a mentor was in supporting women who chose science as a career. Al was a lover of women, but I don’t mean in a smarmy or inappropriate way. Al admired – I’d even say revered – women for all of their beauty, intellect, and creativity. His life partner, Lynn, exemplifies all of these characteristics. Al always seemed energized as he spoke of her, perhaps as mention of her reminded him of his good fortune.
Although Al was a great scientist who anyone would seek out as a graduate mentor, women seemed to sense that his laboratory was a safe and supportive environment. I obviously can’t speak for the women who trained with him and I hope one or two will stroll by to comment on this blogpost. But during my time with Al, his laboratory was almost exclusively composed of women scientists. When I left Colorado for North Carolina, Al agreed to take on my one remaining graduate student who had just passed her comps. Al was already on her committee but it was a particularly good match in my absence.
The lost art of the Festschrift
I’m finishing this post in a hotel room outside Boulder a few hours before Al’s memorial service. I’m struck by how much I’ve written, how warmly I remember Al, and how grateful I am to have spent a formative period of my life with him. But I’m equally struck by how often my recollections such as these tend to occur when a person has passed. Rarely do we acknowledge our mentors while they are still with us.
The Festschrift is a volume of talks, research papers, and essays collected during a symposium that honors the accomplishment of a scientist at a major milestone, e.g., retirement, 70th birthday. Thanks to my department chair at Florida, Dr. Al Neims, I had the rare opportunity to attend a Festschrift for Johns Hopkins biochemist, Albert Lehninger (yes, the author of the biochemistry text). “The Mitochondrion 1986″ was intended to honor Lehninger’s retirement but, sadly, he passed away during the planning for the event. Speakers included his trainees as well as his fiercest scientific competitors whose recollections and warmth of comments reflected how they, too, were approaching the end of the line.
I’m wondering why we don’t do these much in academia today. I would far rather be going to a symposium to honor Al this morning than attending his memorial service.
I’d rather be with him than without him for what is likely to be a day of bittersweet recollections of a man, a true gentleman, who touched each of us who know him from across the breadth of his talents.
Update: During Al’s memorial service, Dr. Lori Dwyer-Nield represented scientists in speaking about her 21 years working with Al. She generously allowed me to repost her eulogy here.