Diversity rules

Over the past several decades, I have worked with my colleagues in the biochemistry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas to build what has evolved into a unique scientific environment. From the start, we collectively decided that what we needed was diversity of scientific capability.

Our objective was to build a department that could use almost any tool necessary to probe biological systems. We recognized the need for expertise in structural biology, synthetic chemistry, natural products chemistry, high-throughput screening and its associated robotics and informatics, hardcore biochemistry, small animal pharmacology, and the use of model organisms for the study of new and complex problems in biology.

We did not need capabilities in the field of molecular biology: Those were already represented in spades across the UTSWMC campus. For the same reason, we did not need expertise in genetics, genomics or clinical research.

What we needed to build a bona fide department of biochemistry were diverse capabilities not, at that time, represented at our school.

I emphasize here the importance of diversity in research. I liken the different strengths in our biochemistry department to those of a football team. A team that has big, strong offensive and defensive linemen, fleet receivers and defensive backs, good punters and field goal kickers, and a good quarterback will beat a team fielding 11 star quarterbacks hands down. By having chemists, biophysicists, biologists, pharmacologists and biochemists, our department — with the help of disciplinary capabilities covered elsewhere at our institution — can approach just about any problem in biomedical research.

With respect to competitiveness, of course, diversity is not limited to the variety of scientific disciplines. We need scientists ranging in age from our young summer interns to the oldest member of our faculty, Kosaku Uyeda, about whom I’ll have more to say below. We need both women and men as critical contributors, and we need ethnic diversity.

Longer term, what we have been trying to build will not last without representational diversity. Hard problems are far better approached by teams blessed with diversity. When I say hard problems, I refer to challenges that are not guided by any instructional formula or map. The collective knowledge of a team, if homogeneous, is little better than that of a single member of the team.

The historical image of a successful academic scientist is a white male wearing a bow tie and tweed jacket adorned with leather elbow patches. This person is awash with grant funds, runs a large, self-contained laboratory and travels the world giving lectures and winning awards. Historically, promotion committees have wanted to see this image before granting tenure to a faculty member. Whereas this image of academic science may persist to some degree, it is thankfully on the way out. If not, the enterprise of biomedical research in America would wither and die. Any department filled with faculty of this description is as likely to dominate science in the future as a football team that hits the field with 11 quarterbacks.

I’ll close with a few words about Kosaku Uyeda, the sage of our biochemistry department. Ko was trained as a biochemist at the University of Oregon and at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Throughout his career, he has made textbook discoveries telling us how cells regulate their physiology as a function of access, or lack thereof, to glucose. Ko knows more about intermediary metabolism than the rest of the entire UTSWMC campus in aggregate.

Research in fundamental metabolism went to bed for 30 years. Now that the gold rush of molecular biology and genomics is coming to an end, if we want to do anything more than mindless data gathering, we are challenged to return to thinking about problems that require acumen beyond the four letters of the genetic code.

Seeing the very youngest of our trainees rub shoulders and gain sagacity from our oldest faculty member gives me a huge boost of confidence that what we are building may persist. Diversity rules!

Steven McKnight Steven McKnight is president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.